In high school, I asked my mom to let me go to a Red Cross blood drive. “Giving blood is fine,” my mother said, “but you know Jews don’t donate certain organs.” “Wait, what?” I asked, confused. “When the Messiah comes, he raises everyone up, and we need to be buried with all of our vital organs,” she told me. “The body is sacred; it’s not ours to give away.”
That seemed odd to me because, well, eventually we are dust anyway. But I certainly didn’t want to violate any more Jewish laws than I already did — sneaking McDonald’s after school was bad enough. But I did believe in the preservation of the body: I would never be cremated or delay burial more than a day or two. Now, I added organ donation to the list of things I wouldn’t do. I couldn’t picture my body ascending upwards towards the next world if the heart or lungs were missing.
Growing up in New Jersey, my Jewish parents kept a traditional, Conservative home. My mother and brother were more observant than anyone else in the family — in fact, my brother requested to attend a yeshiva in Brooklyn and is now a Hasidic rabbi in Jerusalem. Over the years, my mother became more religious and eventually, she moved to Israel as well. The rest of us didn’t practice as much anymore.
As an adult, I don’t belong to a synagogue or keep kosher, but I still celebrate Jewish holidays and maintain certain observances I fast on Yom Kippur, keep Passover, and only cook kosher food for the holidays. I also speak to my brother every now and then about the weekly Torah portion. These things make me feel more connected than attending a synagogue service with family.
I occasionally thought about death, and wondered what would happen to my soul, but I usually managed to put it out of my mind quickly. However, my feelings about helping others were growing difficult to ignore. At work, a co-worker’s father needed a lung transplant. I felt awful for her and couldn’t imagine the panic she felt. I’d hoped he would find a donor match because, even if I was in a car accident tomorrow, I couldn’t help — after all, I’d been told my body wasn’t mine to give away.
The guilt I felt about that was intense. I tried to think of other Jewish rules, like the duty to help save a life. That felt right to me. Plus, the rabbinical sages in ancient times knew nothing about life-extending measures like breathing tubes or electronic machines. There were laws about that, too, but I knew I didn’t want to linger as a vegetable on life support. Thinking about all of this made my stomach hurt.
Before I could dig any deeper, my phone rang. It was my mother’s doctor. “You need to come in with your family to discuss the MRI,” he said. Within a few hours, at his office, my mother was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. I had suffered the same fate only five years prior, and I’d recovered.
Stunned, I went home and thought about my recent donor dilemma. I pictured a few grim scenarios: What if my mom’s cancer was spreading and she needed a “forbidden” organ? What would we do then? Once again, I had that vision of a fuzzy grey body hovering over my grave.
This was ridiculous, I thought. Would God really refuse someone at the pearly gates because they helped another human survive on earth? It couldn’t really be murder or suicide to donate an organ — could it? I began to doubt my long-held beliefs about Jewish burials. I knew others had different opinions and interpretations of Jewish law but I trusted my mother and my rabbi.
Both my Orthodox rabbi and my brother, a Hasidic rabbi, held the opinion that Jews were required to keep vital organs until death. According to their interpretation, vital organs could not be harvested for donation while the heart was still beating. You could save a life, but not at the expense of your own. And not everyone accepts the same definition of when life truly ends.
While my mother battled her disease, I joined an online cancer support group for survivors and families. There, I read a mother’s desperate plea for her little girl to have sight. Others posts were from young adults who were hoping to save their family members — they directed the site’s members to an organ or bone marrow registry. It was heartbreaking.
Eventually, my mother finished her chemo, and, like me, she recovered. We were both grateful. Life more or less returned to normal, but I noticed that as my network of friends on social media expanded, so did their pleas for medical help. Requests for aid came in my email at work and home. Technology made them impossible to ignore.
After awhile, I couldn’t push the donation issue away. Not after what I saw in the hospital; not after what my family went through. This was no longer an abstract concept to ponder — and yet, I still wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe, I thought, I would consult another rabbi about the issue, or maybe I’d speak to a doctor regarding life support and brain trauma.
But then my driver’s license came up for renewal this year. I waited at the DMV and eventually my picture was taken. When the flash disappeared from my sightline, I walked over to the monitor and verified my name and address. Then, that familiar dreaded choice came up again. This time, I felt calm. Next to “Organ Donor?” I checked the box for “Yes.”
This post is part of a series supported by MJHS Health System and UJA-Federation of New York to
raise awareness and facilitate conversations about end of life care in a Jewish context.
To learn more about the role of hospice and its value to patients and families click here.