The arrests of rabbis who trafficked body parts uncover more complicated issues.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 24 2009 4:11 PM

Organ Failure

The arrests of rabbis who trafficked body parts uncover more complicated issues.

(Continued from Page 1)

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."



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Dear Prudence
Sept. 18 2014 6:00 AM All Shook Up My 11-year-old has been exploring herself with my “back massager.” Should I stop her?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?