Book Cover Five Ounce GIft

Cover of Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz's latest book.

Growing up, like lots of idealistic young people, I always wanted to be the kind of person who would change the world drastically and for the better – perhaps as a life-saving scientist, a soul-inspiring musician or a transformative political leader. The problem was I wasn’t quite cut out for those fields and even those who do make it big in the public sphere don’t always have a profound or positive impact.

So instead, I found myself on the path of pursuing wisdom and justice in the religious realm, where I learned from the Talmud that saving a life is like saving the entire world. Fair enough, but saving even one life isn’t exactly easy either. Becoming a surgeon, for example, is extremely difficult, as is being a first responder.

Then, when I was in my mid-30s living in Scottsdale, AZ, teaching Jewish values each day, it dawned on me that I had an accessible opportunity to save a life through “altruistic kidney donation,” meaning giving a kidney to a stranger. While the benefits of such an action are, just as the Talmud teaches, boundless, I was overwhelmed with existential questions. What is my obligation to protect my own life? What if, God forbid, my wife was to lose her husband, and my kids were to lose their father? What if my remaining kidney were to fail later on?

At that time, I didn’t have access to the literature I wanted in order to be informed. I felt morally paralyzed by the enormity of the quandary. So I pledged that if I were to pursue this path of donation, I would afterward create a resource that could be helpful to others – to people considering donating their kidneys and for those wanting to be supportive of their loved ones who wish to donate.

That’s why I wrote “The 5-Ounce Gift: A Medical, Philosophical & Spiritual Jewish Guide to Kidney Donation” (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022). For this book, I gathered Torah wisdom from Jewish teachers, medical guidance from surgeons, knowledge from the world of philosophy and practical experience from others who have donated.

We face an enormous problem in our communities: About 90,000 people in the U.S., per the National Institutes of Health, are on the kidney transplant waiting list, and only about 20,000 transplants per year can be completed. Our hearts break for those suffering from end-stage kidney disease, also for their family and friends struggling along with them.

This is yet another example of the potential for science and Judaism to work together for the improvement of the world. By tying the moral responsibility imbued by our tradition to the life-saving power made possible by medical advancement, we can bring each field toward its full purpose.

My goal in writing this book was not to persuade people to become kidney donors. My objective is to have an honest and open exploration of the questions involved for those interested. I hope to help readers grapple with our obligations to one another and our duty to protect ourselves.

Ultimately, I decided to go through with my kidney donation. I had my kidney removed in New York in June 2015 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And my kidney was given to a very young Israeli named Yossi, who had lost his mother at a young age. I didn’t choose him as my recipient; I was willing to donate to anyone. But I felt deeply drawn toward him and accepted him as the first option presented to me.

“As far as I’m concerned, every person who donates a kidney is a superhero,” Yossi wrote shortly after his successful surgery in an essay now included in this book.

I never did become Albert Einstein, or Yo-Yo Ma or the president – or one of the many nurses who do life-saving work every day. But to Yossi, it was as if I had saved the world. I want to figure out how we can work to save more worlds together. JN

“The 5-Ounce Gift” is available for pre-order through Ben Yehuda Press. Proceeds will go to Valley Beit Midrash to further our Jewish educational programs.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.