Organ donation can be a ‘posthumous
By FRANCES KRAFT
TORONTO - Reluctance
on the part of some Jews to donate organs is “a mindset
problem rather than a halachic problem,” according to Rabbi
Speaking on behalf of Trillium Gift of Life, Ontario’s
organ and tissue donation agency, the Ottawa-based rabbi was
one of five speakers at a recent symposium on end-of-life
issues held at Beth Tzedec Congregation.
Joining him at the Apr. 23 event were David Novak, an
ordained rabbi who is a professor at the University of
Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion; lawyer Arthur
Fish; Rabbi David Feldman, dean of the Jewish Institute of
Bioethics in Teaneck, N.J; and Laurie Zoloth, professor of
medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University.
Jews are “traditional people,” said Rabbi Bulka, explaining
the slowness in accepting the idea of being organ donors. “We
are so used to the idea that after a person passes away, that
person is interred in the ground – that even the simple idea
that there’s a way station stop between death and burial
which, beforehand, never existed... and is of life-saving
proportions – we still have not gotten our head around it.”
Changing the mindset will take “action by a significant
rabbi,” said Rabbi Bulka, who leads Congregation Machzikei
Hadas, an Orthodox synagogue. He compared the issue to that of
burial shrouds and modest coffins, instead of more expensive
alternatives. “It was only because a great sage instructed
that he be given a simple burial that we now take for granted
that that’s the way it is.”
He cited an organization called the HOD (Halachic Organ
Donation) Society, whose website includes a list of rabbis who
have signed an organ donation card.
About 150 people die in Canada every year while they are
waiting for an organ, said Rabbi Bulka. In Canada, if the
family of a potential donor “balks at the idea of giving an
organ, even if this was the expressed wish of the person who
passed away, we don’t proceed. I think it’s part of the
From a Jewish perspective, the idea of having to have
family consent is “bothersome,” said Rabbi Bulka.
“No one has the right to deny a person the zechut, the
merit, of saving someone else’s life. If, in your will, you
say you want your car to go to someone, that is not contested.
But the idea that if you want your organ to save somebody’s
life, that can be contested – does not make any sense.
“What also does not make sense,” he added, “is to stand in
the way of someone doing a mitzvah, even if it’s a posthumous
Ethically, it is hard to defend the position of being
willing to accept an organ donation, but not being willing to
donate one, he said. “If we accept the idea that we can take,
we also have to accept the idea that we have a responsibility
However, he said, few Canadians – less than 3.7 per cent –
even donate blood, also a life-saving endeavour.
Donating offers “a great sense of fulfilment,” he noted.
Recalling his own donation of blood platelets that went to a
two-year-old leukemia patient, Rabbi Bulka said he was “the
recipient, not the donor.” Nothing was more musical to his
ears, he said, than to hear that he was saving a child’s life.
For families of deceased organ donors, too, “when they are
onside,” it is “thrilling” to know that their gift has
Responding to a question about the Jewish tradition of
burying intact bodies, Rabbi Bulka said the most important
value in Jewish life is that of saving others’ lives.
Burying a person whole is important, he acknowledged, “but
this is no different than telling a person on Yom Kippur, ‘You
have to eat in order to save your life.’
“We have this pecking order of mitzvot,” he said. “If what
happens in the end is that you’re saving a life, then you’re
doing the greater mitzvah.”