Sermon: On Organ Donation

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 30 April 2016


It will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied even a little Talmud, that if you turn to page 85 of Tractate Yoma of the Bavli, you will find an argument.   No surprise because arguments are what the Talmudic Rabbis do.  Open a page of Talmud, any page, and this is likely to be what you’ll find.

The argument you’ll find if you turn to page 85 of Tractate Yoma of the Bavli is in many ways a very typical one – it is not an argument about a matter of principle.  All the Sages cited – and there are some biggies here – Yishmael, Akiva, Elazar ben Azaryah, Yose ben Yehudah – all of them agree about the matter of principle.  As is so often the case in the Talmud, the argument is not really about the outcome – not about the destination but about the route.  Not about the verdict, but the proof.

In this case, the question that is so exercising the rabbis is: how do we know that saving a life supersedes Shabbat.  Not, note, whether it does – they all agree that this is the case, already.  But how do we prove it from the text?  Yishmael brings a proof from the laws of self-defence; Elazar ben Azaryah makes a kal va-chomer (an argument from the minor to the major) from the fact that circumcision overrides Shabbat – if it does, how much more so, saving a life; Other rabbis analyse the exact wording of some of the mitzvot of Shabbat to find their way of reaching the conclusion.

All the answers are challenged, but one.  A later authority is brought by the text.  Rav Yehudah, in the name of Shmuel: “If I had been there, this is the answer I would have given.  And it would have been better”, he says.  And he quotes our portion from today: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, that people shall do, va-chai ba’hem – and live by them”.  The laws are there to live by – not to die by.
It’s this proof which prevails in the Talmud.  The text concludes, rather wonderfully, about Shmuel – “one sharp pepper is better than a basket full of melons”.

And it establishes this verse, a line of Torah that we in our movement rarely get to read because of the vagaries of our reading system, as the source text for one of the most important principles of Jewish life – pikuach nefesh.  This is the principle that saving a life takes precedence not only over Shabbat but over all the other mitzvot except for three.  There are only three things that cannot, in Jewish law, be done to save the life of a human being, those being: taking another life, idolatry, and certain forms of sexual practice.  Otherwise, “keep my laws, to live by them”.  And if keeping will cause someone to not live, don’t keep.  Saving a life is always of greater value.

This core idea from our Torah portion, that most of the details and concerns of our religious lives are to be set aside when placed against the value of saving a life, is why we have nominated this Shabbat as our organ donation Shabbat.  A Shabbat on which we are asking as many members as possible (and remember, there is no upper age limit on registering) to make sure that their names are on the organ donation register.  With thanks to the NHS Transplant service, you can find more information about how to register in the special display in the foyer.

Of course, there are plenty of other Shabbatot that we could have chosen.  We could have chosen next Shabbat, when the portion includes the instruction “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”, which Rashi interprets as not letting someone die when you are able to save them.

Or we could have chosen Shabbat Bereshit, with the description of human beings created in the divine image, from which the rabbis understood that to save the life of any living human being is to prevent the diminishing of the divine image in the world.  To be unwilling to do so is to be willing to see that divine presence diminished.  And thus, as we find in the Mishnah: one who saves a single life is considered as if they saved an entire world.  We are held responsible, in a good way, not only for the life we save but also for the lives of their descendants.  Conversely, if we choose not to save a life it is considered as if we choose not TO save an entire world.

Or, we could have chosen Shabbat Va-Etchanan, in which we find the idea of Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s name before the nations of the world through our actions and through our relationship with the obligations that fall upon us.  There we read (in Deuteronomy 4), “Observe [the laws] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing about these laws will say ‘Surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people’”.  There are few mitzvot that better fulfil this statement than the obligation to save life, few better ways to sanctify God’s name than by demonstrating our commitment to pikuach nefesh.  And yet currently this is not what we do – as Jews we currently under register.  Instead, we perpetuate as a community an act of hillul hashem, a desecration of the name of God, by accepting the organ donations of others while not being willing to donate ourselves.

The obligation that we are speaking about this morning can be found in all sorts of places in Torah.  We could have chosen many shabbatot, because the obligation to save life is a value that utterly permeates our tradition.  But, we didn’t – we chose Shabbat Acharei Mot.  Partly because there is no Bar or Bat Mitzvah this week.  But mainly because it is this verse, “keep the laws and live by them”, the idea of pikuach nefesh, that  best expresses the idea: that each of us is obligated as Jews to do all we can – save for murder, idolatry or the unlawful sexual relations – to save the lives of others.  This is not an altruistic decision we make out of love, but a Jewish obligation coming out of text.

When you open most pages of the Talmud you’ll find argument.  Arguing is a primary mode of Jewish life.
But about this there should be no argument.
It is true that there are some halachic authorities who choose to argue still about organ donation in Jewish law, but mainly the argument is about halachic (Jewish legal) definitions of death, not about the principle but the detail.
But, beyond that, there is no argument. It is my firm belief that each of the rabbis you’ll find on page 85 of tractate Yoma of the Babylonian Talmud – Yishmael, Akiva, Elazar ben Azaryah, Yose ben Yehudah, Shmuel – all of them would have believed that it was their religious duty to be on the organ donor register.
All agreed that saving life supersedes all other mitzvot but three.  They still would have argued, I’m sure, but all that would have been left to argue about was the proof text.