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Jewish Journal

Serious Matters and the Mind/Heart Problem

April 6, 2000 | 8:00 pm

The cover story, "The Final Taboo," in this issue caused a certain amount of soul searching in our offices this week. Not that we questioned the piece or the reporting itself. Everyone had only praise for Religion Editor Julie Gruenbaum Fax, and the research and writing that went into her story. First rate.

We were definitely going to run it. The question was: Should we place it on our cover?

The case for was argued forcefully. It was a serious story; an important one that the community needed to hear; or at least read about. Most major Jewish organizations from Hadassah to the Wexner Foundation were behind organ donation; placed it high on their list of priorities for the Jewish community.

Moreover, many rabbis were in agreement about the importance of "getting the word out." Actually "the word" had two parts. First, it was definitely acceptable in halachic terms for Jews to donate their organs after death to hospitals and needy recipients. And, second, it was increasingly becoming a matter of urgency -- if we were intent on saving lives. The lives of relatives and strangers, children and adults. What could be wrong with that?

Actually nothing. It was just that while the rabbis and organizational leaders were passing along all the relevant information in synagogues and in newsletters, most of us were not listening. Out of choice.

To be sure there were a number of responses that indicated, well, surprise. We didn't understand what was involved; we thought it was not allowed under Jewish law; we want to check with our rabbi. Statements like that.

You can probably fill in your own multiple choice answer.

But the heart of the matter (if you will allow the image), appears to be that most of us respond to the idea of organ donation emotionally. The arguments, the logic, the case to be made under Jewish law are all irrelevant. We are, for the most part, in a state of denial. Contemplating our own bodies after death -- contemplating death itself -- is not particularly something most of us want to hear or discuss. Not in response to a set of reasoned and forcibly marshaled arguments. And certainly not in public.

After all, death is a private matter, wills and estate settlements notwithstanding. And the disposing of one's body parts after death is not something the squeamish among us wish to sort and speculate about. So, if you don't mind, rabbi, this is none of your business.

Lest you misunderstand, I am neither arguing with nor dismissing that view. It seems foolish to me to counter feelings by presenting a set of logical and rational reasons for adopting a course of action. Feelings and logic comprise two different languages. You really cannot argue with feelings; only help someone discover their source; or his/her set of associations, so that it becomes possible to uncover where the feelings come from. And then, only if someone wishes to go down that path.

In this sense, I would say that the leaders of the organ donation parade dare not look behind out of concern or fear that relatively few are following. Perhaps that -- and the seriousness of the matter -- explains the exhortations.

Which brings us to The Jewish Journal's cover. I admit: It goes against the grain. It is not a popular, entertaining or politically sexy subject. But it is very directly related to matters of life and death.

If readers wish to avoid the issue, that is their right. And no amount of reporting, cover stories or passionate imploring will alter things very much. My point to you is this: Read the story; it is important. If you do not want to buy into the reasoning -- indeed wish to reject it -- figure out why. That will be useful. Don't wage a struggle between mind and heart. Rather, weigh the reasons carefully that Julie Gruenbaum Fax puts forward. If you can, trace back the origins of your emotions in as rational a way as possible.

And then go with your feelings.

Oh, yes, the alternate cover would have been Naomi Pfefferman's story on Jon Robin Baitz and a new group of plays in Los Angeles which we believe are of some interest. You can find that story on page 39. It's included in this issue and well worth reading. It's just not on our cover. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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