Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications
Steinsaltz: Basically, I’m in favor of organ donation. I say… I say… as I said, there are the emotional and sentimental parts. The emotional part of it is, as I said, there’s no… no real obligation, you cannot say that a person has to do it – has to give a part of his body, living body or after the death body. It is – the sentiment is very well felt, and many people, including people who should know better, have the same sentimental or emotional misgiving about… about giving the body for use.
The sentiment can’t be overcome just by talking about it, but if one speaks about it in any kind of way, rational or halachic way, saving a life is one of the highest, highest levels that a death can reach. Saving a life is really something that means that most of the laws and mitzvoth of the Torah are put aside in order to save a life. Even very harsh things like keeping the Shabbat, which is in itself desecrating the Shabbat, is a capital punishment. But… in order to save life, you can and you have to do things on Shabbat. So in that sense, whatever is in the dead body, whatever I can attribute to it, in one or another, saving a life is halachically more important – it’s more important, and if one can do it, has to do it, this is the point.
Of course, the problem about resurrection of the death… the dead is basically meaningless. If most of the bodies decompose after some time anyway and so the question will be what happens and as it has been pointed out, if you would believe that those whose body didn’t remain intact after death are not resurrected, there are a few millions of our brothers who were burned and we cannot deny them being resurrected in good time. And let’s say one possibly wants to make the work for the Almighty easier by having the body intact, but it seems that as it is written in the Gemara, if he can make a human being from nothing, surely he can make it from something.
So that is the main point. The problem about heart transplant is connected with the main halachic problem, which is ‘what is the point of death’? That is… it is not…there is a time in which everybody will agree that the person is dead, and there is a time when everybody can agree that the person is alive even though [he] has no chance going on living for any time. The point is, what is exactly the minute in which death is pronounced to happen and that was in many, many old sources, the point was the stopping of the heart was considered for many, many, many generations as the sign for death. They may check also when there is no breathing at all, which is a way, sometimes an easier way, of checking is listening through the heart. But basically, it was when the heart/lung system no longer functioning. Now we have, that’s what really happened, there are new ways of defining death, which is brain death, which means when the brain is no longer functioning and cannot function anymore. Now, as it is now, one can prolong life if life is the functioning of the heart and the lungs, you can prolong it for a person that is no longer really alive.
By any sense, it was shown that even a decapitated body can continue to have its heart and lungs functioning, which is clearly not a living person because this function can continue for some time – it depends how severe the damage has been, but it can continue for some time after. I suppose that most, not all, of the authorities now agree that brain death is in itself a final sign of death; and the fall from that point on, even though the heart and lung can go on functioning, especially with artificial means.
You may say that this is working on a dead body, and the fall, if we are speaking about death, as defined by the brain death, then it means that from that point on, a person is no longer alive and the parts of his body can be used for a purpose that may be saving a life.
Questioner: “and is that your opinion?”
Steinsaltz: This is basically my opinion. From the Gemara, you can’t really make a complete proof. It is a case, and this case is when you have a person who is covered by rubble or stones, you cannot always put your ear to the… his heart. Again, now you have stethoscopes, which possibly can be used in some cases, in other cases the only way was… when you had the face of a person that was clear and you could not practically listen to the heart. But anyway, these two… these two functions are following each other so closely that it really, for any real discussion, it doesn’t mean very much.
Questioner: And what about the mission of Mishnah Ohalot about Hataz H’rosho
Steinsaltz: So I think that’s what I said, that a person that is decapitated is surely dead according to all the opinions. Now we can keep the heart and lungs of such a person from (killed?) Because of that, it shows, there is what you called, I would say, some kind of a movement or functioning after death, which is called in the Gemara “naval lita-ah”, the tail of a lizard. Because there are some parts of some of the body that have the autonomous muscle system can work for a short while without the brain. So even when it is kept off from the body, but this is a dead – this is not a living part of the body – it’s a dead part, which is not completely motionless.
Questioner: “So is it the Rav’s opinion that if there’s a person who is brain-dead in the hospital, it’s as if he’s decapitated.
Steinsaltz: Yes, that’s the main point. This is the main point, there is no difference whether it is… he is decapitated or if there is brain death, because nobody is going to do that to dead people but to satisfy some of the rabbis, you could cut off the heads of people that have their brains are dead and still have the heart functioning.
Questioner: “with the help of a ventilator.”
Steinsaltz: Of course, it cannot be, on its own it cannot work, I mean, it cannot work on its own. This is clear.
Questioner: “So in the general, is the Rav in favor of organ donation?”
Steinsaltz: Basically, I am in favor of organ donation. I say, as I said there are the emotional and sentimental parts, I am obliged to save the life of another Jew. I am not obliged to do it with anybody, then it will be very at least uncomfortable, and it will come into the account of that you, again in a mixed modern society, you cannot do it otherwise, if you want to get parts of the bodies from other people, you’ll have to do it some kind of in this format.