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Dying to Help
With the increasingly strange reactions to the declining health of Rav Elyashiv, one story stands out: A Jerusalem avreich donated one year of his life to Rav Elyashiv. According to the report, he said that “we are in a time that the gedolei yisrael are the pillar of our existence." The report also states that he asked for, and received, permission and encouragement from other gedolim. (Alas, their names are not given.)
Most of the "frum" discussion about this story is centering on whether it is possible to do such a thing. There is a Midrash about Adam HaRishon making a deal with God to donate seventy years of his life to David HaMelech. However, translating ideas from Midrashim to today is problematic (which I will be posting about on another occasion - feel free to send in examples).
I would like to focus on a different aspect to this story. Let us first ask the following: Does this person, and the rabbis that he consulted, really and truly believe that this could work? Or is it just something to make himself feel good and/or inspire others?
I'm not entirely sure of the answer. On the one hand, it doesn't seem likely that he doesn't believe in it. But on the other hand, if he really believes that it works, and that it is a worthwhile sacrifice because Rav Elyashiv, even at this advanced stage of life, is the "pillar of existence" of the Jewish People, then why is he only donating one year?
But, putting this question aside, let us consider the fact that this person is being praised for his gift. Given the assumption that Rav Elyashiv's continued survival really is of critical necessity to the Jewish people, this is indeed understandable. It is true that we do not normally permit the taking of one person's life in order to help another - "Who says that your blood is redder than his?" However, there can be cases where one person's life is, objectively speaking, worth more than the life of another. Furthermore, we see in the Gemara, regarding Papus and Lulianus being praised for giving their lives to save the community of Lod, that a person has more autonomy over their own life, empowering them to choose to give it away, than they do over someone else's life. Thus, to give up one's life in order to save the lives of others can be a legitimate and noble sacrifice.
But here's where things get especially interesting. It is precisely this line of argument which demonstrates that, even if one does not rate brain-death as death, organ donation should be permissible. Even if one considers the brain-dead person to possibly be alive, his life is certainly worth much less than that of a chayey sha’ah, a terefah, or even a goses, since he is incapable even of thought. For a person to volunteer in advance to give up that life in order to save several healthy people is surely even more worthwhile a sacrifice than for this avreich to give up an entire year of his life for a 101-year-old.
And yet, virtually nobody in the Charedi world accepts this argument. Why?
Personally, I think that the answer is simple. Indeed, such a sacrifice is noble and legitimate. However, for the chareidi world to accept it, it also has to sound frum. What this avreich is doing sounds really frum. But organ donation, for various reasons, does not sound frum.
NOTE: For discussion about the halachic option of "noble sacrifice" for organ donation even if brain death is not death, see Rabbi Yehudah Dik, “Terumat Eivarim Mi-Goses LeHatzalat Chayey Adam,” Assia vol. 53-54 (Elul 5754/ August 1994) pp. 48-58; Rabbi Naftali Bar-Ilan, “BeInyan Mi SheTorem Lev O Kaveid LeHashtalah,” Assia 47-48 (Kislev 5750), pp. 131-141; “Terumat Lev HeHashtalah,” Assia 83-84 (5769) pp. 108-118; Rabbi Dr. Michoel Avraham, “Terumat Evarim,” in Techumin (5769) 29 pp. 329-339; Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, at the HODS Rabbis & Physicians Seminar, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (video available at HODS.org). For an analysis of the philosophical framework behind such determinations, see Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, “As Thyself: The Limits of Altruism in Jewish Ethics” and “Concepts of Autonomy in Jewish Medical Ethics,” in Jewish Thought in Dialogue (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press 2009) pp. 326-384.