November 8, 2012
Organ Donation: Holiest of Mitzvot
When we pass from this world and our bodies enter the ground, do we merely wish to be remembered or do we wish to give the gift of life to others? For the medical, economic, and moral wellbeing of our society, the United States must change its policy on organ donation requirements.
Last week, we in my community were shocked and relieved when one congregant received a new kidney (a 100 percent perfect match, which is quite rare). After much pain and prolonged dialysis, she and her family are able to start a new life.
When my colleague and friend Robby Berman founded the Halachic Organ Donor Society, he sought to educate and inspire the Jewish community to save lives. Many had been confused by obscure teachings that Judaism was in some way opposed to organ donation, since, as some have told me, “I will emerge in heaven without that body part,” or that it is a violation of the dignity of the human corpse. Nothing could be further from the truth; organ donation is tantamount to pikuach nefesh (saving a life), one of the greatest of Jewish mitzvot.
The Nodah B’Yehuda, the great 18th century authority of Jewish law, teaches that saving a life is such a high priority that it overrides the prohibitions against cutting into or desecrating a cadaver. Jewish sources do not show that one must be buried with all of one’s organs to be resurrected and that there is only spiritual gain, not loss, in performing this mitzvah.
Consider the current state of Americans on the waiting list for organs and other transplant needs, which grows by 4,000 every day due to the sharp increase in type 2 diabetes (the leading cause of kidney failure) and other factors:
Failure of the heart, liver, kidney, or another organ no longer has to mean the end of life. Most recipients live many years after their transplant. For example, in 2009, the percentage of people still living 5 years after their transplant ranged from a low of 54 percent for lung recipients to 75 percent for heart recipients. However, while about 79 organ transplants take place every day, another 18 people die on the waiting list before they receive a transplant.
Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer boldly argued that it is immoral to keep both of one’s kidneys, since we generally only need one and someone will die if we do not donate our kidney to them. We are not all on the moral level to donate our kidneys as living donors, but at least at the end of our lives we all must take this step. If everyone would commit to donating their organs at the time of their death, this would help to alleviate the worldwide organ shortage and its associated abuses. According to the World Health Organization, thousands of people a year in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, China, and other countries sell their organs to mostly wealthy recipients, in spite of international efforts to prohibit these activities. If more organs were available here, there would not be a demand to buy organs from more vulnerable individuals around the world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"