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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The Pharisees--that is, the rabbis who shaped the Jewish tradition--affirm both the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. On this theological tenet as on all others, the rabbis never drew their thoughts together in a clear, consistent doctrine; instead, as was their wont, they made a number of individual comments, some of which frankly do not sit well with others. They apparently believed, however, that after death the soul continues on with God until messianic times, when it is rejoined with the dust of the earth in resurrection. However resurrection occurs, the Pharisees believed in it so strongly that they claimed that a Jew must not only believe the doctrine but aver that it is rooted in the Torah--where, as we have said, the idea of resurrection never occurs.

Medieval Jewish philosophers continued to believe strongly in the doctrine of resurrection. Of course they did not address organ donation per se, but in the course of discussing resurrection they provided some important arguments to counteract the popular claim that one must be buried with all one's parts in order to have them at the time of resurrection. Saadiah Gaon (892‑942 C.E.), for example, pointed out that if one believes that God created the world from nothing, one should certainly believe that God can refashion and revive the dead, for that only involves the comparatively easy task of creating something out of something that has existed already but has disintegrated.

Such philosophic views, however, have not penetrated to the beliefs of most of those Jews who believe in resurrection. For them, bodily resurrection continues to be a living element of their faith, and Saadiah's argument, which most do not know in any case, has not relieved their anxiety over what will happen to them at the time of resurrection if they give up some parts of their bodies for organ donation.

Perhaps the clearest indication of this ongoing concern for keeping the body intact after death has been Jews' response to autopsies. According to a survey carried out in New York City, Jews, even if they are not religiously observant, are much less likely than others to give consent for an autopsy to be performed on a deceased family member. In Israel demonstrations, street riots, and cabinet crises have periodically occurred over this issue. Although the religious protesters are motivated by concern for Jewish law, both they and the secularists are undoubtedly moved as well by subconscious feelings of the need to preserve bodily integrity after death and by worries about the possibility of a future resurrection of their body without all its parts.

This factor may also be relevant when interpreting how Jews respond to polls on this issue. A Los Angeles Times poll taken in December 1991, for example, found that 67 percent of Christians and 45 percent of those with no religious identity believed in life after death, but that only 30 percent of Jews said that they did. The fact that so many Jews object to autopsies and to organ donation on the grounds of their incompatibility with a belief in resurrection means, however, that far higher percentages of Jews believe in a bodily life after death than are willing to admit that they do. This discrepancy is borne out even more by the extent of Jewish belief in reincarnation: 23 percent of the Jews surveyed believed in the birth of the soul in a new body after death, compared with 20 percent of Christians and 33 percent of the nonreligious. This finding is especially remarkable because it is only the mystical forms of Judaism that profess belief in reincarnation. The fact that as many as 23 percent of Jews asserted such a belief thus clearly indicates that afterlife beliefs lie just beneath the skin of many avowed secularists.

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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.