Three ladies, three lattes: The gift of life

Three Ladies, Three Lattes looks at percolating issues in Israel’s complicated social and religious fabric. Secular Pam, modern Orthodox Tzippi and haredi Danit answer your questions.

 Organ donation (Illustrative) (photo credit: TNS)
Organ donation (Illustrative)
(photo credit: TNS)
My husband wants to put his name on the organ donor registry. We are traditional Jews and I understand that even within the religious tradition there is a dispensation toward allowing organ donation. What are your thoughts?
Ramat Beit Shemesh
Tzippi Sha-ked:
I could tell you about the halachic dispensations – about how even (Pam, are you paying attention?) Rabbi Chaim Dovid, a top posek (halachic authority) in the Satmar world, has ruled that donating a kidney is a halachic obligation!
The verse in Leviticus “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood” is often cited by rabbis across the spectrum regarding kidney donation, especially now that donating is not deemed a great danger.
So I could list rabbis who not only sanction but insist on donations, but I’d rather discuss my friend Yoav (not his real name), whose funeral we sadly attended last month. After two years on dialysis, he was gifted a kidney by his loving sister. While Yoav didn’t live to see his children wed, he did merit another 12 years of life with his beloved family. Just ask any of them what those extra years meant to them. Or ask my friend Linda what it meant to her to donate a kidney to a stranger. She’ll tell you: “It was the best thing I ever did. It made me feel like a million bucks!”
Yes, there are some controversies about other types of organ donations but next to none regarding kidneys. The question is how rabbis choose to focus on this mitzva in their weekly drashot (sermons). To all our readers: Please make it your business to have this addressed in your shuls and communities. Please drop us a line to let us know if your rabbis complied.
Danit Shemesh: If I were not an observant Jew, I would think organ donations are the most altruistic and selfless of practices. I would revere such a donation as a beautiful way to leave this earth, giving of myself literally and figuratively, contributing to human life, the most sacred cause.
However, as a believing Jew, my personal opinion is eclipsed by the Omniscient.
The burning question of what happens after death haunts us. However, there are those whose business it is to know how to treat, with the highest respect, the chariots that housed our souls. Halacha holds the dead body as no less sacred than the living body. The only difference is that the corpse cannot advocate for itself.
Even when one signs an organ donation card while alive, it is not binding; while life resides inside the body, reality is essentially different. Living beings cannot fathom the abject pain the soul feels while its body is prodded and disgraced. When my father died, the rabbis told me to sit with him but not touch him because my touch would cause his soul unfathomable pain. Judaism does not believe that the death of the body is the end of the person. It is only a transition; especially just after death, the soul lingers.
That being said, as the doctor’s job is to call for organ donations, so rabbis strive to declare this halachicly appropriate. They do their best to sanction it through Halacha. There are expert rabbis who know how to ask the right questions, both medical and halachic, to facilitate donation of organs.
Pam Peled: I remember as a child reading about Michelangelo stealing into the church mortuary to dissect cadavers by candlelight to discover how sinews and muscles connect. Had he been caught, he’d have been dissected himself at first light; institutionalized state religion is not usually dramatically pro-science.
Perhaps believing, like Danit, that touching a dead dad would cause his soul unfathomable pain, would explain why only 15% of Israelis have ADI organ donor cards – way fewer than in other Western countries. In 2008 new legislation bringing order to transplants decreed that patients who’ve had donor cards for some years be prioritized for transplants. Subsequently, the rate of signed-up donors increased, though it’s still relatively low. Obviously, the rabbis stepped in, offering a special card of their own – much like kosher and more kosher food on El Al.
Until 2008 no law banned organ trafficking in Israel. Desperate patients paid huge sums to brokers, or were forced into transplant tourism. The new legislation addressed much of the corruption and exploitation, but no laws can change hearts and minds on the “chariot that houses the soul.”
I think I’m also a believing Jew, but my personal opinion is not eclipsed by the Omniscient. Not when it comes to who should go to the army, not when it comes to whether shops should open on Shabbat and some buses should run, not when it comes to conversions, or burials, or organ donations.
May we all be healthy and never need more kidneys. Meanwhile, I have an ADI card in my purse.
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