The arrests of rabbis who trafficked body parts uncover more complicated issues.
But Jewish law, just like secular legal theory, is filled with judicial loopholes. A major one is that for the sake of saving a life, a Jew is allowed to break just about any commandment. For example, if a Jew is injured on the Sabbath, he is certainly allowed to go to the hospital even though he normally doesn't drive on Saturday. Life or death matters trump all but a handful of commandments. And as far as organ donation goes, two biblical verses are trotted out to quell the uneasiness among Jewish donors. "You shall surely heal" (Exodus 21:19) and "You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16).
While this all sounds well and good, there's another Jewish law that can put a hamper in that artery you were about to donate: the prohibition against desecrating a dead body. Is posthumously donating an organ considered desecrating? Complicating this is determining what actually constitutes "dead"—does brain-dead count? Doctors might say one thing, while some rabbis might say another. Taking a Jew off life support can fast become an exercise in intellectual gymnastics once rabbis are consulted.
But most mainstream American rabbis agree on one thing: Organ donation is not only allowed but is considered something to strive for. Enter the Halachic Organ Donor Society, a nonprofit whose mission is to dispel the myth that Jewish law opposes organ donation. Their rabbinic advisory board, a veritable who's who of the spiritually elite, is promoted on their Web site next to the HODS version of an organ donor card. Even the HODS cards can't seem to define death perfectly: Carriers choose whether their organs may be harvested after "[i]rreversible cessation of autonomous breathing (as confirmed by brain-steam death)" or "[i]rreversible cessation of heartbeat."
Rabbi Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University and himself a member of HODS advisory board, favors making posthumous organ donation mandatory to provide a surplus of organs. "The real question is, Why is there a shortage? Why do people go out and buy kidneys? Because they desperately need kidneys and there aren't any," he says matter-of-factly. "There's no black market for feces," he adds. "There's no black market for things that nobody wants."
A 62-year-old friend of mine is the recipient of two organ donations—a kidney and a pancreas. It's why he's still alive and breathing. I asked him what he thought about the rabbis trafficking organs. Surely, he must be upset. After all, these rabbis were cheating the very organ bank system that had saved his life. His response surprised me: He said he had no problem with it. For him, it's all about saving lives.
On that level, it actually doesn't surprise me to find out rabbis were trafficking organs. It's salacious, yes, but not far-fetched. They sincerely felt they were not hurting anyone; indeed, by giving life to another, they probably felt they were mimicking the divine. They were in the business of saving lives. It certainly doesn't justify their illegal activities, but it does help explain it. As Broyde put it bluntly, "They probably wouldn't deal heroin."
Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. He is also the content director for the Mother Nature Network. Visit him online at www.myjesusyear.com.
Photograph of arrested parties by Louis Lanzano/AP Photo.