Jewish Views on Organ Donation

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Agreement Among Denominations

Today there is near unanimous agreement about this issue. In the late 1960s, the Conservative and Reform movements both accepted cessation of brain activity as the Jewish definition of death. Twenty years later the Orthodox chief rabbinate of Israel endorsed the same definition; in 1991 the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinical organization, followed suit. In 1992, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a leader influential among the ultra-Orthodox both in Israel and the U.S., also accepted this definition. He suggested, however, that in addition to brain death, the heart must stop beating for thirty seconds before vital organs are removed.

More Ethical Issues

The fact that most authorities approve of organ donation does not mean that it is an archaic topic. There are many legal and ethical issues that are still debated. If several people need a given organ, how do we decide who gets priority? Can organs be sold? Can they be used without permission?

In addition, in recent years, Jewish institutions and organizations have gone beyond approving organ donation; they have begun to actively recommend it, as an opportunity to fulfill the positive commandment of pikuach nefesh. However, the Jewish community still has a poor track record of post-mortem organ donation. Much of this has to do with the widespread and longstanding misconception that Judaism forbids organ donation This issue is being addressed now by the major denominational institutions, as well as new organizations, such as Operation Pikuach Nefesh, devoted specifically to educating the Jewish community about the importance of organ donation.

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