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Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Living Judaism

What Does Judaism Have To Say About Organ Donation?
Follow up to February's Living Judaism.

-- Rabbi Avi Shafran

Reconstructionist/Renewal Rabbi Goldie Milgram asserts that authorities of halacha, or traditional Jewish law, endorse the cessation of brain stem activity as a definition of death, and consider organ donation a "mega-mitzvah."

For accuracy's sake and your readers? information, both assertions are somewhat misleading. There are halachic authorities who do not accept the concept of "brain death"; so long as the heart continues to beat, these authorities assert, the person is still alive and must be maintained on life-support. They would not offer a blanket endorsement of organ donation.

There are, to be sure, cases where all would agree it is proper, even a great mitzvah, to donate one?s, or a relative?s, organs. But a halacha-respecting Jew considering such a donation, or thinking about carrying an unrestricted organ-donation card, should consult a competent halachic authority first.

-- Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America

Rabbi Milgram responds.

I absolutely agree with and appreciate the clarifications offered by Rabbi Shafran.

Indeed, I myself have attended international Jewish bioethics conferences addressed by poskim who do not allow their constituents to utilize the criteria for death set by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The criteria I saw presented by such authorities do not prohibit organ donation, they do, as Rabbi Shafran indicates, require total cessation of neurological, cardiac and respiratory function, resulting in only the kidneys still being viable for transplant. The emphasis on brain stem death criteria settled on by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate allows for all otherwise-healthy organs of the deceased to be viable for transplantation.

Because of a wide-spread misperception that organ donation is never allowed in Judaism, the State of Israel became largely dependent on non-Jewish organ donors. A serious consequence was Israel's dismissal from the European Union Organ Donor Network because Israel accepted organs from the Network but did not donate organs back to the Network. Action on every Jew's part to participate in the mitzvah of pikuakh nefesh by undertaking organ donation to the extent permissible in every part of the spectrum is urgent for saving lives here, in Israel and world-wide.

As a Jewish bio-ethicist who often works with and consults Orthodox colleagues, I also respect and appreciate Rabbi Shafran underscoring that Orthodox individuals are expected to seek out the opinion of a local Orthodox biomedical Jewish law (halachic) specialist and not decide complex medical matters for themselves or with their physicians alone. The technical term for such a specialist is a posek. Each stream within Orthodoxy have preferred poskim (plural) with whom locals rabbis consult. With so many dying in Israel and the United States due to insufficient supplies of organs for transplantation, it is vital that Jews who live in accordance with Jewish law become knowledgeable about the types of circumstances under which their local Orthodox authorities permit organ transplantation and donation.

-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Director, ReclaimingJudaism.org

Previous Features  

The Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @ pjvoice.com