Reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
A surprising number of Jews think that they need to be buried complete so that they can be resurrected [from the dead] whole, and that giving up an organ for transplantation would thus leave them without it when they are resurrected.
In speaking about organ transplantation with Jewish audiences across the country, I have found that this matter is almost always raised in the question‑and‑answer period if I have not addressed it earlier, and if I have already spoken about it, people nevertheless ask about it again. One might expect this objection from the Orthodox, but my own experience in hearing this concern in many Conservative congregations is borne out also by Judith Abrams, a Reform rabbi in Missouri, Texas, who has spoken about this subject to Reform audiences. This belief, then, is deeply ingrained in the folk religion; indeed, it is often expressed by Jews who are otherwise totally secular in their thought and actions. Modern rationalism goes only so far!
Similarly, in Israel, when the Labor Party in 1977 failed to form a coalition with the religious parties in part because of Orthodox objections to autopsies, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, interviewing an Orthodox rabbi in Tel Aviv, began his questions with this one: “Is it true that the Orthodox are against post mortems because at the ‘resurrection of the dead,’ (tehiyat ha‑metim) those who lack parts (or organs) from their bodies cannot rise from the grave?” The rabbi denied this in the strongest possible terms: “There is no truth in all this. It is some sort of mysticism to which we do not subscribe. When the dead arise, nobody will be excluded, even if parts or all of his body are missing.” He then explained that Orthodox objections to autopsies were based instead on fears of unnecessary desecration of the body.
A historical note on the Jewish belief in resurrection may be helpful in understanding both the popular belief that impedes donation and the rabbinic disgust with this belief. In most biblical literature, people after death go down to the dark realm of the dead, where they presumably no longer have an independent existence as persons. “The dead cannot praise You, nor any who go down into silence,” the Psalmist reminds God. Job and Ecclesiastes know of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead but deny it; it is only the Book of Daniel, chronologically the last book of the Hebrew Bible (c. 165 B.C.E.), that affirms this tenet.
In the last two centuries before the common era and the first five centuries of the common era, ideas about what happens after death were hotly debated. Members of some Jewish groups, especially the Sadducees, continued to deny any particular existence of individuals after death. Some Jewish groups supported the idea of the immortality of the soul, whereas others affirmed resurrection of the dead in bodily form.
The Pharisees–that is, the rabbis who shaped the Jewish tradition–affirm both the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. On this theological tenet as on all others, the rabbis never drew their thoughts together in a clear, consistent doctrine; instead, as was their wont, they made a number of individual comments, some of which frankly do not sit well with others. They apparently believed, however, that after death the soul continues on with God until messianic times, when it is rejoined with the dust of the earth in resurrection. However resurrection occurs, the Pharisees believed in it so strongly that they claimed that a Jew must not only believe the doctrine but aver that it is rooted in the Torah–where, as we have said, the idea of resurrection never occurs.
Medieval Jewish philosophers continued to believe strongly in the doctrine of resurrection. Of course they did not address organ donation per se, but in the course of discussing resurrection they provided some important arguments to counteract the popular claim that one must be buried with all one’s parts in order to have them at the time of resurrection. Saadiah Gaon (892‑942 C.E.), for example, pointed out that if one believes that God created the world from nothing, one should certainly believe that God can refashion and revive the dead, for that only involves the comparatively easy task of creating something out of something that has existed already but has disintegrated.
Such philosophic views, however, have not penetrated to the beliefs of most of those Jews who believe in resurrection. For them, bodily resurrection continues to be a living element of their faith, and Saadiah’s argument, which most do not know in any case, has not relieved their anxiety over what will happen to them at the time of resurrection if they give up some parts of their bodies for organ donation.
Perhaps the clearest indication of this ongoing concern for keeping the body intact after death has been Jews’ response to autopsies. According to a survey carried out in New York City, Jews, even if they are not religiously observant, are much less likely than others to give consent for an autopsy to be performed on a deceased family member. In Israel demonstrations, street riots, and cabinet crises have periodically occurred over this issue. Although the religious protesters are motivated by concern for Jewish law, both they and the secularists are undoubtedly moved as well by subconscious feelings of the need to preserve bodily integrity after death and by worries about the possibility of a future resurrection of their body without all its parts.
This factor may also be relevant when interpreting how Jews respond to polls on this issue. A Los Angeles Times poll taken in December 1991, for example, found that 67 percent of Christians and 45 percent of those with no religious identity believed in life after death, but that only 30 percent of Jews said that they did. The fact that so many Jews object to autopsies and to organ donation on the grounds of their incompatibility with a belief in resurrection means, however, that far higher percentages of Jews believe in a bodily life after death than are willing to admit that they do. This discrepancy is borne out even more by the extent of Jewish belief in reincarnation: 23 percent of the Jews surveyed believed in the birth of the soul in a new body after death, compared with 20 percent of Christians and 33 percent of the nonreligious. This finding is especially remarkable because it is only the mystical forms of Judaism that profess belief in reincarnation. The fact that as many as 23 percent of Jews asserted such a belief thus clearly indicates that afterlife beliefs lie just beneath the skin of many avowed secularists.
Rationally, of course, those who believe in reincarnation certainly should not object to organ donation. After all, they are going to inhabit a new body anyway! Similarly, those who believe in resurrection should also not object to organ donation. If resurrection is the blessing that most who believe in it hold it to be, God should surely be trusted to resurrect us in a better body than the one in which we died.
However one conceives of life after death, the important thing to note is that saving life in the here and now clearly and indubitably takes precedence over whatever one believes about future resurrection. If there is to be bodily resurrection, God must surely, as Saadiah says, create the individual anew, and the Eternal can be trusted to have ample ability to restore all organs and bodily tissues, which, given that the person died in his or her old body, God will need to do at that time anyway. In the meantime, we live under the divine imperative to save the lives we can, and organ donation is one important way to do that.