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Question

What is the position of Judaism on organ donation?"

Answer

This is a quite a complex question, but let me try to shed a little light on the subject for you.

With few exceptions, the obligation to preserve human life ("pikuah nefesh") is an overriding principle of Jewish law. This would support the idea of organ donation.

At the same time, Jewish law prohibits desecration of a dead body ("nivul hamet"). A dead person's body, since it once housed the holy soul, is to be treated with the utmost respect. Every part of the body must be buried - which is why you see the heart-wrenching images of religious Jews dutifully going around after a terrorist bombing, scraping up pieces of flesh and blood for burial.

How do we resolve these two principles?

Organ donation is permitted in the case when an organ is needed for a specific, immediate transplant. In such a case, it is a great mitzvah for a Jew to donate organs to save another person's life. Organ donation is not necessarily limited to dead people: Someone who can afford to spare a kidney, for example, may donate one to someone in need.

Yet in consideration of the prohibition against desecrating the body, it is forbidden to simply donate to an "organ bank," where there is no specific, immediate recipient. Furthermore, for general medical research or for students to practice in medical school, a Jew is not permitted to donate organs.

Even when there is a specific, immediate transplant, you need to be careful, because oftentimes in order to obtain organs as fresh as possible, a doctor will remove the organ before the patient is actually "dead" according to Jewish law. The doctor is therefore effectively killing the patient, which is of course forbidden.

The bottom line is that each case comes with its own myriad of detailed halachic factors. So before gong ahead with any procedure, you need to consult with a rabbi well-versed in Talmud and Jewish law. It is clearly not as simple as blankly signing an organ donation card.

For further information, try contacting the Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics in San Francisco (800-258-4427), or read "Judaism and Healing" by Rabbi J. David Bleich (Ktav Publishing 1981). see also "Igrot Moshe" Y.D. 2:174.

With blessings from Jerusalem,

Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Aish.com

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