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.