Jewish Resurrection and Organ Donation

The misguided belief that one needs all body parts intact to be resurrected may contribute to the poor rate of organ donation--even for Jews with otherwise untraditional beliefs.

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Reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

A surprising number of Jews think that they need to be buried complete so that they can be resurrected [from the dead] whole, and that giving up an organ for transplantation would thus leave them without it when they are resurrected.

In speaking about organ transplantation with Jewish audiences across the country, I have found that this matter is almost always raised in the question‑and‑answer period if I have not addressed it earlier, and if I have already spoken about it, people nevertheless ask about it again. One might expect this objection from the Orthodox, but my own experience in hearing this concern in many Conservative congregations is borne out also by Judith Abrams, a Reform rabbi in Missouri, Texas, who has spoken about this subject to Reform audiences. This belief, then, is deeply ingrained in the folk religion; indeed, it is often expressed by Jews who are otherwise totally secular in their thought and actions. Modern rationalism goes only so far! 

Similarly, in Israel, when the Labor Party in 1977 failed to form a coalition with the religious parties in part because of Orthodox objections to autopsies, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, interviewing an Orthodox rabbi in Tel Aviv, began his questions with this one: "Is it true that the Orthodox are against post mortems because at the 'resurrection of the dead,' (tehiyat ha‑metim) those who lack parts (or organs) from their bodies cannot rise from the grave?" The rabbi denied this in the strongest possible terms: "There is no truth in all this. It is some sort of mysticism to which we do not subscribe. When the dead arise, nobody will be excluded, even if parts or all of his body are missing." He then explained that Orthodox objections to autopsies were based instead on fears of unnecessary desecration of the body.

 

A historical note on the Jewish belief in resurrection may be helpful in understanding both the popular belief that impedes donation and the rabbinic disgust with this belief. In most biblical literature, people after death go down to the dark realm of the dead, where they presumably no longer have an independent existence as persons. "The dead cannot praise You, nor any who go down into silence," the Psalmist reminds God. Job and Ecclesiastes know of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead but deny it; it is only the Book of Daniel, chronologically the last book of the Hebrew Bible (c. 165 B.C.E.), that affirms this tenet.

In the last two centuries before the common era and the first five centuries of the common era, ideas about what happens after death were hotly debated. Members of some Jewish groups, especially the Sadducees, continued to deny any particular existence of individuals after death. Some Jewish groups supported the idea of the immortality of the soul, whereas others affirmed resurrection of the dead in bodily form.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.