What is the Jewish position on organ donation? I have been told, albeit by someone relatively uneducated, that a Jewish body must be "whole and intact" for Jewish burial. But what confuses me is that, since my father had renal failure and was on dialysis, he was on a waiting list for kidney transplant. Is it then alright for a Jew to accept organs but not to donate them? This question has been on my mind for almost 20 years!
Also, I would like to register as an organ donor so that if, God forbid, I am involved in a fatal accident, I could help someone in the same position as my father. Can something so selfless and caring cause me to lose the mitzvah associated with a Jewish burial? Please explain – because if I am ever called upon to save a life, I want to know that I am doing the right thing.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
This is a complex question, and you have articulated the issues well.
The Jewish position on organ donation is as complex as the issue of life and death, because it derives directly from the Jewish perspective on the sanctity of life and the role that our physical existence plays in the advancement of our spiritual selves.
On the one hand, we have a sacred obligation to preserve human life (pikuah nefesh). This is an overriding principle in Jewish law – so important that almost any other law can be broken for this reason. For example, we can break Shabbat to drive an injured person to the hospital.
On the other hand, Jewish law prohibits desecration of a dead body (nivul h’amate). A dead person's body, since it once housed the holy soul, is to be treated with the utmost respect. Every part of the body must be buried – which is why you see the heart-wrenching images of religious Jews dutifully going around after a terrorist bombing, scraping up pieces of flesh and blood for burial.
How do we resolve these two principles?
Organ donation is permitted in the case when an organ is needed for a specific, immediate transplant. In such a case, it is a great mitzvah for a Jew to donate organs to save another person's life.
Organ donation is not necessarily limited to dead people: Someone who can afford to spare a kidney, for example, may donate one to someone in need. (See an inspiring account here: http://www.aish.com/sp/so/48937647.html)
Yet in consideration of the prohibition against desecrating the body, it is forbidden to simply donate to an "organ bank," where there is no specific, immediate recipient.
Furthermore, it is also forbidden to donate for general medical research or for students to dismember in medical school.
Even when there is a specific, immediate transplant, there is need for caution, because oftentimes in order to obtain organs as fresh as possible, a doctor will remove the organ before the patient is actually "dead" according to Jewish law. The doctor is therefore effectively killing the patient, which is, of course, forbidden. (For more on this, see www.jlaw.com/Articles/brain.html)
The bottom line is that each case is different. A myriad of considerations must be reviewed. So before gong ahead with any procedure, consult with a rabbi well-versed in Talmud and Jewish law. It is clearly not as simple as blankly signing an organ donation card.
(Sources: Nodeh BiYehuda II Y.D. 210; Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:174; Minchas Yitzhak 5:7; Tzitz Eliezer 10:25; "Judaism and Healing" by Rabbi J. David Bleich.