Judaism and organ donation

judaism long

Information taken from NHSBT website

In principle Judaism sanctions and encourages organ donation in order to save lives (“pikuach nefesh”). This principle can override the Jewish objections to any unnecessary interference with the body after death, and the requirement for immediate burial.

It is understandable that there will be worries and concerns for the Jewish family who are asked to consider organ donation. At a time of stress and grief, linked to sudden unexpected illness and death, reaching a decision can be difficult for them. They may be worried that giving consent may not be consistent with the honour and respect that Jews believe is due to the dead (“kavod hamet”). Judaism considers each case as different, and recognises that at this time any known wishes of the dead person can be valuable. For example, some people will tell their families to consult with specific Rabbis or religious authorities. Some Jewish groups encourage their members to join the NHS Organ Donor Register.

In Judaism, whether or not the wishes of the dead person are known, it is widely recognised that families are entitled to decide for themselves; and that they will often wish to consult with their own experts in Jewish law and tradition before making a final decision.

Judaism holds that organs may not be removed from a donor until death has definitely occurred. Again, for some Jews the “brain stem death” criteria are acceptable. Others Jews will only agree to removal of organs from a “non-heart beating” donor. The latter approach may cause problems concerning heart and lung transplants, where time is of the essence, but does not exclude donation of other organs.

After donation it is important to recognise that kavod hamet still applies. In Judaism avoidance of any further unnecessary interference with the body and immediate internment are again the prime concern.

Judaism, therefore, approaches the question of organ donation very much on a case by case approach. Also on an individual basis, if the families wish to seek advice, in most instances they would make an approach to their own known and respected religious adviser. If they are unable to obtain such advice easily, or in circumstances of uncertainty, the main religious organisations (e.g. United Synagogue, Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogues, Federation of Synagogues, Masorti Synagogues, Reform Judaism, Union of Liberal and Progressive Judaism) can provide useful supportive information. In all instances the principles of kavod hamet and pikuach nefesh would be considered, and in addition during the difficult decision process Judaism would also incorporate another principle, which must not be neglected: that of providing nichum aveilim – comfort for those who are bereaved.

  • “One who saves a single life it is as if he has saved an entire world”
    Pirke D’Rav Eliezer, Chapter 48