Your Living Will, Organ Donation, and Jewish Law

bean necklaceA Living Will is a legal document in which you express your wishes about your health care, including end of life care.   In your Living Will, you may also express your wish that your organs be donated after your death.  Although organ donation can and does save lives, many clients ask me to eliminate organ donation language from their Living Wills.  One common reason they cite is the prohibition against organ donation under Jewish law.  “Jews don’t do that”, they tell me.

I am often surprised and disappointed that these clients choose not to be organ donors.  It seems a waste of a potentially life saving opportunity.  So when a recent client – who is an observant Jew – educated me about the real Jewish beliefs about organ donation, I was intrigued.

Here is what I have learned:

Jewish (i.e., halachic) law permits organ donation.  It imposes rules and restrictions on the definition of death, burial, and body desecration that may limit organ donations.  But there is no blanket prohibition.   In fact, there is a Jewish principle (pikuach nefesh) that the preservation or saving of a human life overrides all other religious rules.   Giving an organ to save a life is a mitzvah (i.e., a commandment or a good deed) more important than all others.

If you are a Jew, I strongly encourage you to include the direction to donate organs in your Living Will.  Doing so may save up to 8 people’s lives.  If you are concerned about violating Jewish law, I can prepare for you a Living Will that meets your wishes and your religion.   Your Living Will can include a direction to donate your organs with limitations or contingences consistent with Jewish laws and beliefs.  I recommend one or more of the following limitations or contingencies:

  1. Limit the donation to certain life saving organs.
  2. State expressly that organ donation is to be done only to save another’s life.
  3. Require your Health Care Agent to consult with a rabbi before deciding to donate organs. (You may identify a specific rabbi who you trust.)
  4. Require organ donation to be made only as permitted under Jewish law.

A well drafted Living Will will allow you to remain an organ donor without compromising your values.  I am not rabbi or an expert in Jewish law.  You may wish to consult one in making this decision.  For more information on this and related topics, I also recommend you consult the Halachic Organ Donor Society website.

*The Kaiser Law Group’s Megan Lenzi wears this Tiffany & Co. silver bean pendant, a gift she received after donating a kidney to her brother.

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