Yet Another Embarrassment in the Israeli entanglement of Religion and State

Jewish tradition treats the body as a sacred vessel for the soul.  After death, the body is treated with the same respect as when it was alive.  It is carefully washed and dressed before burial.  Burial takes place as soon as possible – it is not respectful to leave the body unburied.  Autopsies are not permitted, unless doing so will directly save the life of another identified person.  Mutilating the body for the purposes of profit, experimentation, or education is not permitted.

Yet, it is widely accepted that halakha permits organ donation, even in the Orthodox world.  The Conservative movement believes that signing on organ donor card is a positive mitzvah – an obligation.  You can read a teshuvah on the topic here.

Organ donation, however, generally requires accepting the cessation of brain activity as a criteria for death, rather than heart death.  The reason is simple and obvious.  It is generally considered to be the case that once the heart stops beating long enough to pronounce the patient dead, the organs have been deprived of oxygen long enough no longer to be suitable for transplantation.  I have read some material suggesting that in some cases, a criteria of non-heart beat for a period of less than 5 minutes might be enough to declare death and harvest organs, but this is controversial.

Nevertheless, many Jews believe that organ donation is not permitted – that a body must be buried completely intact in order to be resurrected in the messianic era.  My response to this is if God could create my body from joining together two cells, then God can recreate my body even if it is missing a few organs!

Consequently, the rate of organ donation in Israel is embarrassingly low.  Only 8-10% of Israelis are registered as organ donors, compared with an average of 35% in other Western countries.  The Knesset has passed a law giving those who agree to be a donor a higher priority if ever they should need an organ.  The deputy health minister, however, is a follower of Haridi rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who does not believe in a brain death criteria.  His followers are not allowed to donate organs.  They are, however, allowed to accept donated organs (is this the definition of hypocrasy, or what?)!  The deputy health minister is apparently going to refuse to implement the new law because he and the rest of the 100,000 followers of Elyashiv would be bumped to the bottom of the organ queue.  You can read stories about the law below.

Israeli Organ Policy May Be D.O.A.

Innovative idea could discriminate against sect

BY MARC TRACY | 4:21 pm Mar 15, 2010 |

n an effort to raise its quite low 10 percent organ-donor rate, Israel has been planning to give those who agree to be donors a leg up when it comes to receiving organ donations. They would move up in the queue, in other words, should it ever come to that.

While bioethicists say this is perfectly kosher—“reciprocal altruism” is the apparently not-oxymoronic term—the plan has come under fire for allegedly discriminating against some ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe they are religiously barred from being donors. (Never mind that they’re not, assuming the organs are being used to save a life and not for profit.) Specifically, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv’s 100,000 Israeli followers believe they are not allowed to donate their organs until after cardiac death (at which point the organs are dead, too). In case you were wondering, yes, they are allowed to accept donated organs.

The Knesset has passed a law enacting this whole thing. Implementation, however, is up to the health minister … there is no health minister currently, so instead it is up to the deputy health minister … the deputy health minister is—of course—an Elyashiv follower. So, we’ll see.

Does Radical New Way To Boost Organ Donation Discriminate Against Ultra-Orthodox Jews? [AP/Vos Iz Neias?]
Earlier: Israel’s New Organ Donor Policies


Tattooing and Body Piercing

I have been teaching my 7th grade class about Jewish ideas of body and soul for the past month.  I entitled the class “Our Body and Our Selves:  Owning vs. Renting.”

One of the most interesting places that this idea plays itself out is in the arena of body art — tattooing and body piercing.

If we own our bodies, we should be able to do with it what we want:  color the skin,and pierce the skin and hang decorations wherever we want.  When we own a house, we are permitted to make whatever renovations we want without any restrictions.

However, if we are only “rentors,” temporary inhabitants of our bodies, it would make sense that the LandLord wouldn’t want us to paint the walls crazy colors.  It would also make sense that we shouldn’t be allowed to put nails in the walls and hang pictures all over the place in haphazard ways.

I’m sure most parents would be happy if it were in fact the case that they could tell their children that the Torah forbids tattooing and piercing.  However, that turns out not to be the case.  The prohibition against tattoos is reasonably explicit (Leviticus 19:28), but equally explicit verses about piercings in the ear and nose (Exodus 21:6, Genesis 24:47, Exodus 32:2) as well as Rabbinic references to women and men with pierced ears make it clear that body piecing is permitted!  Further, there is no compelling argument to permit ear and nose piercing while prohibiting eyebrow, belly button, or other skin piercing.

Rabbi Alan Lucas has written a fascinating teshuvah on the topic, which I will be teaching at an adult education series beginning April 18.  In the meantime, feel free to read Rabbi Lucas’ teshuvah here.

Stuck in a Rut? Pesah Tells You to Get Unstuck!

Divre Harav, Words from the Rabbi – Bulletin article, March, 2010

I am grateful to the leadership of Congregation Ahavas Israel for giving me a three month Sabbatical.  The time away from active rabbinic work was renewing and refreshing, but it is very good to be back at the synagogue.

While away, I visited with a number of pastors to learn about the creation of a sermon from a fresh angle.  Within Protestant churches, the sermon is the focus of the service much the same way that the Torah reading is the focal point of a traditional Jewish Shabbat morning service.  We devote about 1/3 of the service time to the Torah reading, and about 1/2 of our time on Shabbat morning is devoted to the Torah service, adding in the Haftarah and the sermon.  In the churches I visited, the pastors devoted an equivalent amount of time within their service to the sermon.  Because their sermon functions as the main vehicle for hearing sacred Scripture, they tend to be longer and more carefully structured than most synagogue sermons.  They also tend to use Biblical verses to appeal to the emotional and moral sense of the congregation, often teaching a specific belief or theological approach to God, while most synagogue sermons tend to appeal to the intellect and teach a specific Jewish practice or behavior.

I don’t believe that one style is inherently better than the other.  What I learned from the project is that it is easy to get into a rut, preaching and teaching in the same style and appealing to the same part of the brain week after week, just because it is familiar and comfortable.  The work I did as a graduate coach in a Dale Carnegie program reinforced the same message — that most of us are stuck in a rut, doing the same things over and over again, repeating the same habits and the same mistakes, because we are afraid of trying something new.

This is a good lesson to be reminded of in conjunction with the celebration of Pesah.  The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, a word that connotes narrow places  (probably taking its name from the fact that the fertile part of Egypt is a narrow strip of land on either side of the Nile).  In a metaphorical sense, when we are stuck in Mitzrayim, we are living our lives in a constricted place. We are stuck inside a narrow box.  Pesah is the time to look at the narrow box in which we are living, look at those behaviors which keep us stuck in a rut, and free ourselves.