BSKI event explores organ donation and Jewish law

Dr. Harvey Solomon


When Beverly Fogelman and Dr. Ralph Graff consulted about programming at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation – she heads the social action committee and he chairs the adult education program – they came up with a topic certain to spark a lively question-and-answer session.

“Talking with the rabbi about programs, we mentioned that some people think organ donation is forbidden by Jewish law,” says Fogelman. “We decided to offer a good program that would educate people, and then let them make their own decision. I hope we get a good turnout.”

The two-hour program will cover the benefits of organ transplants, Jewish perspectives on organ donation and the different definitions of death. For the panel, Graff and Fogelman chose Rabbi Mordecai Miller; Dr. Stephen Lefrak, professor of medicine at Washington University; and Dr. Harvey Solomon, professor of surgery at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.

Graff, a professor of surgery and director of the histocompatibility laboratory at St. Louis University School of Medicine, will serve as moderator. Questions from the audience will be welcome, and light refreshments will be served after the program.

Solomon, a member of the board of directors of the Mid-America Transplant Services and a physician in the field of organ transplantation for over 20 years, took time recently to talk about the issue.

What is the current status of organ transplantation?

Over 100,000 people are waiting for organs, yet donations from the living have plateaued and other donations remain static. We have seen increases in some older donors, but we are not making inroads in fulfilling the needs of people on the list.

How serious is the situation?

We’re dealing with something crucial. As more people are added to the list, there is a greater chance that many of them will die without getting an organ.

Do studies back up the value of the procedure?

We know it is life saving to perform transplants for all organs – transplants are clearly the definitive treatment for end-stage organ diseases of the liver, kidney, pancreas, heart and lung.

Why is this issue suddenly controversial?

The majority of organ donations today come from people who are brain dead, which has long been recognized as the medical criteria for death. The Rabbinic Council of America had accepted brain death as the definition of death, but in January, the Council came out with a statement that made acceptance of that definition ambiguous for the Orthodox community.

Who decides now?

The Council suggested that every rabbi make his or her own decision. The statement has caused an upheaval here, in Israel and in the United Kingdom. Donors who experience cardiac death cannot donate hearts and few of them can be lung or liver donors, either, so we need those donors who experience brain death.

So the key issue is a new definition of death?

That, and also this is about whether a religious person can accept an organ. This is the main problem for the Orthodox community, because though they can accept an organ, now they may not be able to donate. Yet in Jewish law, saving a life is above any other mitzvah, and we know organ donation saves lives.

What led to the shift in interpretation?

Nobody knows.

How will this play out?

In Israel, they have passed a law stating that people who sign donor cards will be given priority should they ever need an organ. Because of politics, the law may not be put into effect. Other countries have “implied consent” policies, where you have to opt out if you choose not to be a donor.

What about in the U.S.?

We have a registry, and when you sign the back of your driver’s license or otherwise sign up, you have given what is called “first-person consent” and that is considered a legal document. Most medical professionals still consult with the family, though legally, you can proceed.

What are your thoughts on this controversy?

I am very involved in the Orthodox community, but we have a real problem here. This issue has to be brought out to the community. It cannot be left in an ambiguous state. I would like to see clarification.

Organ Donation And Jewish Law

What: A panel discussion with Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation, Dr. Stephen Lefrak and Dr. Harvey Solomon.

When: 10 a.m. June 26

Where: Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation, 1107 E. Linden, Richmond Heights

How much: Free

More info: For registration, call 314-725-6230