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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According to many doctors and educators who deal with the issue, Jewish audiences—of whatever denomination—consistently bring up the idea that in order to be resurrected, one needs to have all her body parts. Rabbi Eddie Reichman, a physician and professor at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says the idea stems from some obscure references in midrashic sources. But he points out that if one believes in resurrection, that must come with a belief that God will restore decomposed bodies.

At a panel on end-of-life issues at B’nai David-Judea Congregation [in Los Angeles] a few months ago, Reichman countered with another midrashic idea.

“There is a rabbinic tradition that there is one bone called the luz bone from which resurrection will take place,” he said, “so we will have a connection to the original body in which we lived. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has translated this midrash into contemporary understanding, saying one simply needs one strand of DNA.”

But there is also more solid ground for the perception that Judaism would frown upon organ donation: the very real halachic concept of kavod hamet, preserving the dignity of the body that housed the departed soul. Cadavers are treated with honor, so that modesty is retained even during the ritual washing. The body is never left alone, and it is buried as soon as possible. Every effort is usually made to bury a person with all her body parts, even amputated limbs or spilled blood. It is no surprise, then, that harvesting organs would seem to violate these precepts.

But everyone involved in the halachic debate surrounding organ donation agrees that all those laws must be overridden if it is a matter of pikuach nefesh, saving a life—considered one of the greatest mitzvot in Judaism, surpassing most other commandments.

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Julie G. Fax

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