Just recently, a highly respected sage, Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, son-in-law of the late, great venerated sage Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, shocked many by stating that Judaism is in favour of organ donation. He attached the usual caveat that one should consult one’s rabbi on this. But the message is clear and unequivocal.
The question is, will it make a difference?
Why would it not? Because it remains an entrenched myth in the mind of so many that Judaism is against organ donation. Jews and non-Jews are convinced of this.
Why do so many people believe this? There are a number of possible reasons. One is simple: ignorance. People don’t know, and therefore assume, often incorrectly. Another is that it is convenient to believe that Judaism is against organ donation, because that way, you are off the hook and don’t need to contemplate this urgent and life-saving matter. People generally avoid all conversation regarding their eventual demise, including buying burial plots. Organ donation fits with this avoidance response.
Or, people might actually be afraid of donating an organ. Why? Perhaps they give credence to the preposterous statements they may have heard, and attributed to some otherwise sage individuals, to the effect that if you donate an organ, you will come into the afterlife without that organ, as a punishment for having saved someone’s life! This is so ridiculous as to defy comment, yet it circulates and does its own incalculable damage.
Imagine that God would punish someone for having fulfilled the supreme mitzvah of saving a life. Or that God, who generates life, cannot generate another kidney. Or that someone who donates a heart will walk around in the afterlife without a heart!
By the way, what happens to those who did not donate a life-saving organ, but nevertheless had a lung or kidney removed because of cancer? Do they likewise get punished for having cancer? The more we splice this, the more absurd it sounds, because it is absurd.
Not absurd is the presumption made by many that Judaism insists on burial after death, and that by donating an organ, that body part is not buried. The premise is correct, but the conclusion is not. The Torah obliges us to bury those who have died. That is clear. Equally clear is that saving a life is a vital mitzvah that is praised and encouraged as the most noble deed that we are humanly capable of.
Until this generation, these two concepts never met after death, because organ donation was not a viable medical procedure. That has changed in the past few decades, such that organ donation is now part of after-life care. The human body is sacred, both in life and after death. If after death, one can save a life with a body part, that is an overriding mitzvah, pikuach nefesh, that pre-empts the other competing mitzvah obligations.
We understand that one must treat the Shabbat as an ordinary day in order to save a life. The same logic applies to the mitzvah of burial, namely that the rule of mandatory burial is waived for that organ or part (cornea) used to save life, or sight, as the case may be. Admittedly, it will take more than a few years to have an entire faith community re-adjust thinking that dates back thousands of years, thinking that has given birth to a noble Jewish reflex: death followed by funeral and burial, done as soon as possible with no delays.
The reality is that donating organs after one has passed from the world is a difficult concept, and it takes only a slight blip to convince people to back off from it. We continue to face an acute shortage of organs, to the extent that every three days, a person in Ontario dies waiting for an organ.
And to be fair, there are challenges, the most critical of which is assuring that the person donating an organ is dead according to halachic definition. For this, we have a major difference of opinion surrounding the issue of brain stem death, specifically whether it is a sufficient criteria to establish that the person is dead according to Jewish law.
The Halachic Organ Donation Society (HODS) has many rabbis associated with it who have signed their organ donor card. They have made this known in a public manner, and they have endorsed the brain-stem death concept. The issue is still not finalized, but it’s still possible to be an organ donor even with this challenge. And in many places in Canada, DCD, short for donation after cardiac death, has been implemented to help save lives.