Ultra-Orthodoxy and Organ Donation

After learning the results of an experiment involving a decapitated sheep, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach decided to permit organ donations.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post, August 2, 1992.

When a revered haredi [ultra-orthodox] rabbi reverses his position and rules that organ transplantation is permissible and not--as he previously stated--“bloodshed,” will his followers change their views as well?

As first reported by The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach--regarded as one of the foremost halakhic arbiters of the age and influential among many modern Orthodox Jews--now regards organ transplantation as allowable under Jewish law.

Auerbach recently accepted the definition of “death” as being cessation of function by the brain stem, which controls breathing and other vital bodily functions. If brain-stem function is proven by various tests to have ceased, doctors may turn off the respirator. If the person’s heart is asystolic (shows “heart silence”) for 30 seconds, vital organs may be removed for transplant, the rabbi stated.

Despite his ruling, Auerbach has not issued a public call for organ donation.

Health Minister Haim Ramon responded to the rabbi’s ruling by saying that he “welcomes all efforts to increase the number of organ donors.” He added that the matter of the 30-second delay would be studied by the ministry. Prof. Joseph Borman, head of the cardiothoracic surgery department at Hadassah-University Hospital, which has performed most of the country’s heart transplants, said he was “willing to meet with anyone, anywhere and at any time to increase the pool of available organs.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Scheinberger, “health minister” of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit, is the haredi community’s coordinator with the medical world here and abroad. He told the Post that he was aware of Rabbi Auerbach’s new position on transplants. “The haredi community in Israel is so emotionally opposed to the idea of transplants, that a ruling that they are permissible, even by someone with the stature of Rabbi Auerbach, is not enough to overcome basic beliefs and fears about this.”

Scheinberger arranges organ transplants abroad for haredim who need them, since accepting organs removed from non-Jews is regarded as less objectionable, he said. “Unfortunately, most haredim don’t trust the doctors to follow halakhic procedures exactly as delineated by the great rabbis. They just don’t believe they can rely on them.” He was pessimistic that the gap between the haredi and medical communities could be bridged in the short run. “I am ready to sit down with the doctors and discuss the matter, and then go to the top rabbis of the Eda Haredit’s [haredi community’s] rabbinical court (Badatz [which stands for beit din tzedek, or court of justice]), even though this would arouse great opposition. The doctors would have to initiate talks, but I would be ready to be a go-between,” Scheinberger said.

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Judy Siegel-Itzkovich is health and science correspondent of The Jerusalem Post in Israel. She is also Israel correspondent of the British Medical Journal. In 1997, she received the Women of Distinction Award (in the field of journalism) from the 350,000-member Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America.