May 11, 2006
13 Iyar, 5766


Organ donation can be a ‘posthumous mitzvah’

Staff Reporter

TORONTO - Reluctance on the part of some Jews to donate organs is “a mindset problem rather than a halachic problem,” according to Rabbi Reuven Bulka.

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 Canadian niceness.”

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 mitzvah.”

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 to give.”

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 generated life.

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.”