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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.


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Hypocrisy at the synagogue                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jan/22/2011 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: My philosophy,

First of all, let me say that fairness counts. I have commented in the past on the Catholic Church and their apparent lack of responsibility in the ever growing child sex abuse scandal. I have commented on the Westboro Baptist Church and their abuse of our constitutional protection of free speech. It is time to open up one of those issues in Judaism that reeks of hypocrisy.

My issue is with the official stance in Orthodox Judaism on the condition we refer to a being “brain dead.” The reason that this is important to discuss is because it weighs heavily on the permissibility of organ donation under Jewish law. Philosophically, this is the dilemma of life, death, and potentially saving a life.

In the first stage of some deaths, individuals lose the function of their brain stem, which sends the body breathing instructions. If this condition is identified in time, such as at a hospital emergency room the individual may be connected to a machine to keep their hearts pumping and therefore keep vital organs viable. This state is known as being brain dead. If a doctor has to wait until the heart stops pumping to harvest organs, the majority of those organs are no longer viable for implantation.

In Judaism and its traditional Jewish religious law, medical progress is embraced because of the imperative of “pikuach nefesh”. “Pikuach nefesh” is the sanctity of saving human life. But all commandments and laws in Judaism, including the saving of human life, are canceled out if they are achieved at the cost of murder. Without being a scholar on all 613 Jewish Laws, I am sure that most readers are familiar with the sixth commandant of the famed Ten Commandments handed down by God at Mount Sinai. The sixth commandment used to be interpreted as “Thou shalt not kill”. Because of the conscientious objector movement it is now more specifically interpreted from the original Hebrew as “You shall not murder.” But…back on subject; if Jewish law does not count brain death as the end of a life, then harvesting organs is tantamount to murder — which is forbidden.

Do you see the hypocrisy yet? Jews are encourage to embrace medical progress such as organ transplants to save or extend life. Jews are also not allowed by current laws to take organs from another because this is effectively murder. Obviously the real challenge here is that you can’t have it both ways.

Judaism, like most contemporary religions is continuously reinterpreting religious laws as society evolves and finds new ways to challenge our daily moral and ethical decisions. Some of these revisions come from rabbinical councils, some from select groups and some come from noted scholars. Rabbi Moshe Tendler is one of those noted scholars and a professor of biology and a bioethicist at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Tendler is also a senior teacher at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school. Tendler issued a “scholarly opinion” in the early 1990’s stating that brain death is accepted as death. He used the term in his paper “an act of anti-Semitism” because he pointed to the idea that failure to accept the concept of ”brain dead” would mean that while Jews could benefit from transplant surgery, they could not otherwise be donors and this would create an unethical balance. Unfortunately, Tendler’s opinion is not accepted by all the concerned entities.

There is actually quite a bit of Jewish laws regarding how a body is treated including burial customs. The body must be treated with respect since it is God’s property; “we are simply borrowing our bodies for the duration of our lives and we must return them at death unblemished.” This is the reason that permanent tattoos and piercings are forbidden in Jewish law. In case you were not aware, the bodies of deceased Jews are generally not embalmed. Additionally, delaying the burial of the deceased or gaining benefit from a dead body is considered a disgrace to the dead, and therefore forbidden. This obviously poses a problem since organ donation can delay the burial and allows us to benefit from the dead body.

Over the years, different "poskim", or religious bodies have taken different sides on this tenacious issue. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) represents nearly 900 American Orthodox congregations. Their executive committee formally stated that they would not explore the issue or render an opinion which effectively meant absolutely nothing. This lack of action is seen as casting doubt on the permissibility of vital organ donation by Jews who are brain dead, yet upholding the right of Jews to receive such organs. Since the debate refused to go away, the rabbinic group issued an additional statement in June of 2010 urging each RCA member rabbi “to determine for himself, based upon his own study, consultation with halachic (religious legal) authorities and his own conscience, which halachic position he will adopt.” I personally find this position weak at best since each member rabbi is charged with accepting the legal positions presented by the RCA. Do you see the circular logic…no decision effectively means no change. By the way, the clarifying statement released in June 2010 that fundamentally said nothing, was a full 110-page in length.

For obvious reasons the committee’s view has aroused alarm in the medical community since the paper steps away from identifying brain death as being dead. Critics vented their outrage and pointing to statements in the paper such as; “even if an organ was removed beissur (in violation of a halachic law), it may still be used.” If you don’t see the hypocrisy in this…you need to take an ethics class.

One of the more out spoken physicians on this is Dr. Kenneth Prager, a pulmonary specialist who chairs Columbia University Medical Center’s Medical Ethics Committee and Organ Donor Council. “If an Orthodox Jew wants to say that brain death is not death, and therefore it is against Halacha to remove a vital organ from a dead person because that’s killing a person, that’s fine,” Dr. Prager stated. “But to then justify accepting an organ from another person that is viewed as having been murdered to donate an organ is morally repugnant.” He went on to state that the study “left the clear-cut impression that the proper halachic approach was not to recognize brain death as death….” (Dr. Prager’s statement in a news story inspired me to research and write this essay.)

The RCA quickly issued a statement saying that the study was meant to serve as an “informational guide,” and not a conclusive position paper on how rabbis should rule. It seems clear to me that they don’t want to show any real clarity on this issue. It would not surprise me to learn that internal to their board, there is some significant infighting with respect to this issue.

Despite all this smoke and indecision, almost all of the Reform and Conservative Judaic authorities maintain that organ donation… is not only allowed, but a “mitzva” (blessing) when it contributes toward saving someone’s life. There is an important distinction to make here. Reform and Conservative Jews represent the vast majority of American Jews. Additional, they also have their own Rabbinical Councils, but in Halacha or legal questions, some Reform and Conservative Rabbis do look to the Orthodox RCA for interpretation because it helps those rabbi’s to feel “more connected” to the stricter interpretation of their faith when leading their congregations in the most difficult questions.

I suspect that much of this controversy, particularly for Orthodox Jews comes from the idea that in order to be resurrected at the time of the Messiah, all of one's body parts must be buried along with the body or they will not have a complete resurrection.

I feel it is important to not lose sight of the bigger picture. Judaic law and commandments relatively speaking have a numerical hierarchy. I am not well schooled enough (actually self taught) to remember or reference exact passages in the scriptures or Talmud, but I know that Jews are not to let obedience to lesser commandments or laws interfere with their obedience of the higher and more important laws. Since saving a life is superseded only by idolatry, incest, and adultery, there should not in truth be any issue with organ donation. In my view, it should actually enhance the respect for the deceased since the act of donating vital organs can easily be viewed as a final act at attempt to save a life.

Think of the consequences here if the RCA is unable to reconcile themselves with the medical saving technologies of the 21th century. Hospitals already overwhelm us with an endless series of forms and questions. Imagine the next set of questions. “Are you Jewish? You are…I need to know, are you an Orthodox Jew? Woops, you’re not eligible for the same lifesaving techniques and practices we have for everyone else.”

By the way, when I am done with my body, if there are any useful parts left…please take them and cremate what is left.

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