Misgivings and Misconceptions

Though most rabbinic authorities allow organ transplants, the Jewish community has a poor track record when it comes to donations.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

While halachic [Jewish legal] debate still surrounds the donation of some organs, there is growing consensus that donating organs is not only permissible within Jewish law, but fulfills the positive imperative to save a life.


Several new educational initiatives have emerged in the Jewish community to spread that idea and to counter a very disturbing fact: The Jewish community has one of the lowest rates of organ donation among ethnic groups. For despite rabbinic decisions, at a grassroots level, there persists in all segments of the Jewish community—traditional and liberal—a reluctance to discuss the topic, and an assumption that Judaism forbids organ donation.

Twelve people die every day waiting for an organ. There are currently about 68,500 people on the waiting list of the United Network of Organ Sharing, and that number is expected to quadruple in the next few years, according to the Division of Transplantation of the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services. In 1998, about 5,800 people who died donated organs and tissue—about a third of the number of potential donors. An additional 4,300 people were living donors, mostly of kidneys. One cadaver can supply a heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver, intestines, cornea, skin, bone marrow and connective tissue. Some of those on the waiting list can survive for several years without a transplant. Many will die waiting.

The situation has been particularly dire in Israel, where donation was chronically low, and Israel was consistently a net drain on the European organ sharing network, endangering the Jewish state’s status in the network. Israelis have often had to travel abroad to procure organs. The situation has recently taken a turn for the better, as several major rabbis, most recently Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, declared it not only permissible but a mitzvah to make your organs available. Still, Israel’s remains among the lowest rates of organ donation in developed countries.

Given the high stakes, what is holding the Jewish community back?

Partially, the same things that keep the number of organ donors so low in the general population.

“Part of it is people don’t want to contemplate death altogether, and part of it is when they do contemplate death, they have trouble thinking of themselves minus some organs,” says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a bioethicist who is rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism and chair of the Committee on Jewish law and Standards of the Conservative movement. About five years ago, Dorff participated in an inter-religious project that looked at the psychological, folkloric and literary issues that prevent people from making their organs available. He said aside from a general aversion to death, what also came into play were people’s fears of surgery and notions about resurrection.

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Julie G. Fax

Julie Gruenbaum Fax is religion editor at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.