Saturday, June 05, 2010

Saving a life by organ donation trumps Jewish dogma

The principle of saving a life is paramount in Jewish law – so why are ultra-orthodox Jews still opposed to organ donation?

By Seth Freedman

Supporters of a new initiative encouraging organ donation in the Jewish community face an uphill task convincing certain groups that the practice is compatible with religious law. Even though the ultimate mitzvah (commandment) in Judaism is saving another's life, there is still resistance when it comes to donating organs for just such a cause.

According to the misinterpretations of many ultra-orthodox leaders, a person must be buried intact so as to be in full working order when the Messiah comes to revive the dead. Due to the sanctity of every individual's body – which is viewed as simply a receptacle for the God-given neshama (soul) – it is forbidden to desecrate a body, whether living or dead, either with superficially, as with tattoos, or by more extreme actions such as cremation.

The issue of organ donation has divided the Jewish community for generations. Despite an apparent softening in the approach of many ultra-orthodox rabbis to the subject, there are still vast swaths of the Jewish public who are vehemently opposed to it – to the point that many Haredim carry anti-organ-donor cards expressly forbidding the removal of their organs under any circumstances.

Of course, those same people have no problem receiving organs from other donors, displaying the kind of hypocrisy that earns the Haredi community such opprobrium from their Jewish peers both in Israel and abroad. Their all-take, no-give approach over organ transplants is reminiscent of their refusal to serve in the IDF, despite their expectation that others put their lives on the line to defend Israel's citizens and protect their freedom.

Even those rabbis who have come round to approving organ donation in emergency cases draw the line at direct person-to-person transplants, and refuse to permit organs to be donated to organ banks or used for medical research. Such a stance, while an improvement on previous positions, still falls well short of an acceptable level of interaction with the rest of society.

In effect, future patients are being condemned to suffer for the sake of outdated religious statutes incompatible with advanced medicine. Just as other areas of Jewish law have been updated to accommodate a rapidly changing world, so too must the legislation surrounding death and bodily purity.

The dictum that ought to supersede all other pronouncements on the subject is both simple and unequivocal: "One who saves a single life – it is as if he saved an entire world." Such a ruling ties in with the concept of pikuach nefesh (the saving of human life), a rule that permits all manner of "rule-bending" in its honour, including transgression of shabbat laws and the rules surrounding kashrut. Ambulances may be called for on the sabbath or religious holidays; non-kosher food may be consumed if there is no other option to prevent a person starving.

Pikuach nefesh is invoked in a wealth of "real world" situations such as the Gilad Shalit stand-off in Gaza, with Jewish law playing a large part in the decision-making process of military leaders and politicians when it comes to swapping hundreds of prisoners to secure one man's release from captivity. Given pikuach nefesh's superiority over other commandments, the issue of organ donation ought to be entirely black and white, yet the signs are that the Haredi community are as intransigent as ever in their opposition to the practice.

Superstitious beliefs and dogmatic adherence to religious laws are notoriously impervious to change, but the efforts of the Halachic Organ Donor Society and other similar organisations have the potential to make valuable inroads into ultra-orthodox society. Despite all the prevarication on the part of various rabbinic leaders, Judaism cannot allow archaic thinking to overrule the holiest commandment of all.

“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Register to be an organ and tissue donor & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
Register to be a donor in Ontario or Download Donor Cards from Trillium Gift of Life Network. NEW for Ontario: - Learn The Ins & Outs Of Organ And Tissue Donation. Register Today! For other Canadian provinces click here
In the United States, be sure to find out how to register in your state at or Download Donor Cards from OrganDonor.Gov
In Great Britain, register at NHS Organ Donor Register
In Australia, register at Australian Organ Donor Register
Your generosity can save up to eight lives with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants (see allotransplantation). One tissue donor can help 75 to 100 other people by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves

Has your life been saved by an organ transplant? "Pay it forward" and help spread the word about the need for organ donation - In the U.S. another person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 11 minutes and 18 people die each day waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. Organs can save lives, corneas renew vision, and tissue may help to restore someone's ability to walk, run or move freely without pain. Life Begins with You

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