A Life for a Life?

I was scrolling through an application on my phone, looking for some login information that was stored there, when I stumbled upon a copy of my daughter’s driver’s license. In the notes section, it said “Organ Donor.” I quickly checked my son’s and saw that it said the same thing.

Not that it matters, but I had forgotten about the organ donation conversations we had when our kids turned sixteen and were ready to apply for their driver’s licenses. We knew they’d be asked for a “yes” or “no” on the day we went to the Motor Vehicles Bureau, so we made sure to have the discussions well in advance. It helped that my husband and I were prepared and knew how we felt about the issue.

The traditional Jewish opinion on the topic of organ donation is “no.” The reason is based primarily on the belief that one should be buried whole. Why? Because (don’t laugh!), when the Messiah comes and the dead are returned to life, they will need all of their limbs and organs. So, by association, it’s prohibited to desecrate the body.

The modern day view, however, is focused on the mitzvah of saving a life. And, in Judaism, the value of preserving each human life is of supreme importance. Therefore, if organ donation fulfills and meets this objective, it is permissible to give (during life and after death) and to receive organ donations.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in his Essay on Organ Transplant (2004), wrote that “it is a great mitzvah to donate the organs of a person who is dead [beyond a shadow of a doubt] for the purpose of transplantation. And it is a mitzvah for the family to agree to donate the organs of their loved one who has passed away; especially if he consented while he was yet alive…And if you will ask: What will be at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead [if one who donates an organ is] missing an organ? Nonsense! He [or she] will not be missing anything! Both the one who died of illness and the soldier who was fatally wounded will arise complete…an organ with which this great mitzvah is done will reappear twice as healthy [at the time of resurrection].”

This Orthodox rabbi’s opinion is corroborated by rabbis of the Conservative and Reform movements, and they tell us “[We] encourage all Jews to become enrolled as organ and tissue donors by signing and carrying cards or driver’s licenses attesting to their commitment of such organs and tissues upon their deaths to those in need.”[1]

As a parent, there is an obvious challenge with all of this. While donating organs may be the right thing to do, having a sixteen-year-old child say “yes” to organ donation on his or her driver’s license is difficult to swallow. On the one hand, there’s a sense of pride over the decision to do this; but on the other hand, there’s the implication that your child must die to fulfill this commitment.

* * *

Earlier this week I was out to lunch with a business colleague. I looked across the restaurant and saw a woman I haven’t seen or spoken to in a long time. Six years ago her son died in a car accident. He was eighteen at the time and had been a classmate of my son’s. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of his organs had been donated. Did his tragic and untimely death end up saving someone else’s life?

[1] Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Judaism), vol. 2 (1990), p. 279.


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