Organ Donation

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, recovering in a hospital in 2015 after donating a kidney to an Israeli stranger.

Many think about estate planning as a way to shore up their financial life, protect their family and preserve their legacy through philanthropic charitable giving. Estate planning should also include your wishes on anatomical giving, or organ donation.

The Torah on organ donation

One of the foundations of Judaism are the mitzvot (commandments). One such commandment requires Jews “not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger” (Leviticus 19:16). This is also known as the principle of pikuach nefesh. Other portions of the Torah demand that: “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16); “you shall surely heal” (Exodus 21:19); and “you shall restore” an object or one’s health (Exodus 23:4).

In contrast, however, are prohibitions of nivul hamet, mutilating a deceased’s body; halanat hamet, delaying burial; and hana’at hamet, deriving benefit from a dead body. As a deceased person’s body is believed to have housed a holy soul, the body is to be treated with respect.

Modern-day Judaism has struggled to reconcile these conflicting principles and Torah portions.

Modern-day interpretation of organ donation

Most agree that organ donation from one living person to another living person is permissible. The donation must be for a specific, immediate need and must not endanger the life of the donor. Donation to an organ bank is not typically permissible, as it is not for an immediate, identifiable need.

The dynamics of modern science have also allowed most in Judaism to agree that organ donation for almost any legitimate medical purpose is permissible. For example, Reform Judaism focuses on the overriding obligations to save lives (pikuah nefesh) and heal sickness (refu’ah). This includes organ donations made by living persons and the deceased.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) acts as the authority on halakha for the Conservative movement. The members of the CJLS grappled with the tension in the Torah and also ultimately agreed that organ donation is a mitzvah of hesed (loving kindness).

Specifically, the Rabbinical Assembly Plenum passed a resolution in March 2000, stating that “the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has concluded that organ donation is not only permissible, but a mitzvah” and called “for each Conservative synagogue to encourage organ donations among its members through an educational program and campaign, the goal of which is to have an increasing number of people sign organ donor cards and to inform family members of their desire to be organ donors.”

The CJLS also drafted Jewish Medical Directives for Health, providing for organ donation, among other medical directives.

Discussions with an estate planning professional and your rabbi can help you identify your anatomical wishes and complete any preferred organ donation forms. JN

Allison L. Kierman is the managing partner of Kierman Law, an Arizona estate planning law firm, and a member of Congregation Beth Israel, in Scottsdale.