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Resurrection Through Organ Transplantation

Yizkor means "He will remember.” The prayers appeal to God's memory. God is He who remembers. "Lord what is man that You should notice him? What is mortal man that You should consider him?"

The prayers express anxiety lest we leave this world without having cast a shadow on the earth. The terror of death is to discover at the end of our lives that we have not lived. Not to have lived is the unspoken dread of dying. Not to be remembered for having lived confirms the suspicion of the hollowness of our lives. It helps explain the pervasive pursuits of immortality: why we have our names inscribed on the walls of the sanctuary, inscribed in the frontispieces of the Prayer Book, Bible; why we author books and draw paintings, testimony that we have lived and have mattered. We would be remembered.

We are social animals. Memory depends upon others. We seek a "kaddish,”  someone who will recite a prayer after us. Memory is the way we hope to defeat the terror of oblivion. The severest curse in our tradition is that one's memory be blotted out.

Woody Allen wrote, "I want to achieve immortality, not by having children and not by writing books. I want to achieve immortality by not dying." It is a taunting joke. We know that we cannot achieve immortality by not dying. What can we do to extend our mortality? to assure our resurrection?

In a manner inconceivable in earlier ages, we can these days exercise the power of resurrection. We can transplant our immortality into the body of others. We can live beyond the grave. My colleague and friend Jack Riemer notes that the first heart transplant took place in 1967 by Dr. Christian Bernard of South Africa. Since then, thousands of corneas have been transplanted and have enabled people who otherwise would be blind to see. In our time, thousands of hearts, lungs, pancreas, livers, kidneys and bone marrow have been transplanted.

Consider the spiritual implications of such a scientific revolution. Life can now be given to others by ourselves. "Who shall live and who shall die" takes on personal urgency. It is a matter of our will, our decision and our courage. We are presented with choices undreamed of, powers of life and death are in our hands. This new gift should be spoken of, thought of and wrestled with our family and friends. A kidney can last 36 to 48 hours, a liver can last 18 hours, and a heart can last 5 to 6 hours. Fifty percent of all heart and liver patients die while they are still waiting for a transplant. What we can do with our organs when we die has to be decided upon now and here while we are alive and well.

Some ask, from a Jewish legal point of view is it permissible to donate an organ to another after you die? Is giving permission to transplant my organ a nibul hamet, the desecration of the body? The questions become less and less theoretical. The press recently reported the condition of a teenager, an 18 year old woman by the name of Kreindy Weber, whose life hangs in the balance. She is in need of a double lung transplant.

There are rabbis properly concerned with the sanctity of the human body who reject the medical secular definitions of death that focuses on the cessation of brain function. For them, the absence of brain waves as recorded by an electroencephalogram do not satisfy the criterion of death. They argue that as long as the heart is still beating or the patient breathing one cannot judge the patient to be dead. To use an organ while the heart is still beating is tantamount to murder, according to some Halachic authorities. This judgment is based on the reverence for life that forbids as much as moving a limb of a moribund person lest it hasten his death. (Yoreh Deah 339:1) There are rabbis who are unwilling to authorize organ transplants from an individual whose heart is beating and though his brain is dead. Regrettably, those individuals who are brain dead but whose heart may be kept beating by artificial means make ideal donors especially for complicated transplant cases.

The debate concerning the criteria of death proceeds. But the judgment of the rabbinic bodies as to the justification of organ transplants is virtually unanimous. According to the decision of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly which is the organization of Conservative Rabbis, and the Law Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis which is the organization of Reform Rabbis, and the Halachic Committee of the Rabbinical Council of American which is the organization of Orthodox Rabbis, it is permitted to donate an organ for transplantation. Though we have such rulings there are some rabbis who nevertheless oppose transplanting organs.

Aside from the halachic issues, there are moral and spiritual implications of organ transplants that demand attention. How do I feel about my own mortality? I cannot think of anything that would offer surer meaning to my immortality of influence than the knowledge that my organs may be given to another at the end of my life. What more consoling knowledge than the thought that after I die my eyes may be placed into that of a man or woman who has never seen a sunrise or seen a baby's face? What greater joy of morality and immortality than to give sight to those who cannot see and to give heart to those who suffer in pain and fear? To give life after death is to participate in the life of God who gives life and keeps faith with those that sleep in the dust. The gift of organ transplant transforms my deathbed into a bed of life. Our ancestors could not do what we can thanks to medical progress. The miracles of medical science enable us to direct our immortality. Something as palpable as our physical organs may endure beyond the grave. We have it in us to give sound to the deaf, voice to the mute and muscle to the fallen. We can be remembered for good. The triumph of the human spirit over death is no rhetorical flourish. The very notion of the resurrection of the dead is within our reach. The verse from Ezekiel 36:26 takes on new meaning:   "And I have given unto you a new heart and a new spirit will I put within you." "And I will take out the stony heart out of your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh."

We pray a set of prayers each day throughout the year, which are entitled "powers" (gevuroth). Those blessings in the Amidah take on a new and profoundly personal meaning in the light of the miracle of organ transplantation. They address the image of God imprinted on our bodies and souls. "You sustain the living with loving kindness and in mercy call the departed to everlasting life. You uphold the fallen, heal the sick, set free those in bondage, keep faith with those that sleep in the dust. Who is like unto You, almighty King, who decrees death and life and brings forth salvation? Faithful are You to grant eternal life to the departed. Blessed are You Lord who calls the dead to life everlasting."

In the prayer for rain on Shemini Azeret, and in the prayer for dew on Passover, we insert an added benediction immediately preceding the prayer recalling the power of resurrection. We ask:

For a blessing and not a curse.
For life and not for death.
For plenty and not for famine.

As in no other age, we have been given the blessing and the curse, life and death, and we are bidden to choose life.

The contemporary theological question confronting us is less whether you choose to believe in resurrection but whether you choose to act on that belief. The theological question is less whether you believe that the dead will in the distant future be resurrected, but whether you believe in exercising the God given power in your lifetime. The benediction in praise of God's power of resurrection is written in the present tense.

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Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784