Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Jewish perspective on organ donation

(Contributed by Ezekiel Isaac Malekar)


Modern technology has made it possible to transplant hearts, kidneys, pancreas, corneas, lungs and livers from one human being to another. It is beyond dispute that organ and tissue transplants save and extend the quality of lives. The ultimate act of altruism is for a living donor to make the gift of an organ to a spouse, a sibling or a friend and there is no greater legacy for the deceased than to serve as a life giver to the others. Respect does not end with the death of a beloved. The dead body is the shell of a living image of God. Rather than deepen our pain at the time of our loved one's death, this ultimate act of generosity to donate organs may actually soften our loss and uplift us. Recently on 28th June, 2013, my aunt passed away after a brief illness in Israel and as per her last wish, her children donated her body to science for legitimate medical purpose.

There are 613 Commandments in the Old Testament and the most important Commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). The Jews were commanded to demonstrate a love for God as well as for their fellowmen. Being willing to donate an organ from our own bodies would seem to be an extreme example of selfless sacrifice for another. The Torah does not specifically address the issue of organ transplantation or donation. Obviously organ transplantation or donation would have been unknown in Bible times. Organ transplantation and donations were once prohibited by Jewish Laws and tradition because they were experimental and endangered life. Today organ donation and transplantation are essentially successful medical procedures. Accordingly Rabbis and Scholars across the spectrum of Jewish life have upgraded.

Organ donation from a corpse to the status of Mitzvah chiyuvit (an obligatory commandment) of "Pikkuah Nefesh” that of saving a life. Organ donation from a living donor so long as it will not significantly risk the donor's life is a mitzvah kiyumit (a praiseworthy).  However there are verses that illustrate broad principles that may apply. One of the most compelling arguments for organ donation is the love, mercy and compassion, such an act demonstrates toward others. Saving a life is a fundamental imperative in Judaism.

Charity (in Hebrew Tzedakah) is an attribute of God himself. Both the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel considered charity as an indispensable requirement for a life. The Hebrew word "Tzedakah" means righteousness or justice. Charity to donate organs is greater than all the sacrifices. Giving charity is the way in which man can "walk after the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:5). Charity saves us from the death.(Proverb 1:2).  Charity of saving life of another is as important as all other commandments put together. Proverb 21:3 says - To do righteousness (Tzedakah) and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice to mean that charity is greater than all the sacrifices.

In principle, Judaism supports and encourages organ donation in order to save lives (in Hebrew ""Pikkuah Nefesh"). Most rabbinical authorities not only permit it but also encourage it. The Talmud Tractate Yoma 65b reminds us to remember the commandment "You shall live by them, you shall not die because of them". (Leviticus 19:16) This means that we should not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.   This principle overrides the Jewish objections to any unnecessary interference with the body after death and the requirement for immediate burial. On the contrary the body is sewn up quickly and the funeral can occur without much delay.

Judaism considers organ donation as the highest mitzvah (Commandment) and the most religious person should perform it. The ultimate respect for the dead is to enable them to save a life; giving life is the highest form of respect of life. In the Talmud, saving a life supersedes most everything and many commandments may be transgressed if the goal is to save a life and therefore organ donation fulfilled the highest religious and spiritual virtue because Judaism holds life as being sacred. For humanistic Jews, there is no greater value than the sanctity of life. Saving a person's life is to sacred, a value in Judaism that if a person's organ can be used to save someone else's life, it is actually an honour for the deceased. As Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:6 says, "Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world."

Jewish Law distinguishes between donating organs during your life time and after death while you are alive and donate an organ that you can live without like a kidney or parts that will replenish themselves like blood, or bone marrow in order to save or vastly improve another life is one of the greatest acts you could do. 

However there can be significant emotional, spiritual blocks and psychological factors to fulfilling a mitzvah (commandment) such as organ donation. Sometimes leads to family member to block their deceased loved one's organ donation out of emotional discomfort or misplaced devotion. But it is our responsibility to honor God's name and to save lives by giving the gift of life by donating organs. 

All religious and spiritual leaders as well as all inter-faith organizations and NGOs may unitedly come together (6th August, 2013 was Organ Donation Day) and create awareness among their followers, students in schools and colleges by communicating their willingness to donate organs on online "www.Ileadeindia2013.com" and let us say with one voice "I would like to help someone to live after death."

Let us remember a favorite bumper sticker which reads "Don't take your organs to heaven because heaven knows we need them here". Organ donation needs to be seen as a true mitzvah, a commandment, a "must".

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