What is the Jewish view on bone marrow transplants? What is the opinion on being a Jewish organ donor if Jews are supposed to be buried within 24 hours of death?
Up until a few decades ago, the notion that one’s tissues or organs could become part of another human being’s body and thereby help restore that other person’s health, was considered science fiction. Now, as we know, it is commonplace. But what does Judaism have to say about it?
To take your first question, just think: If, at little risk to your health, it would be possible to take bone marrow from your body to restore someone else’s health and well-being, could there be any doubt that this is praiseworthy?
There’s a very important principle in Jewish law known as “pikuach nefesh.” Pikuach nefesh is the mitzvah (religious obligation) to try to save another’s life, if at all possible. This is considered so important in our tradition that we may violate many other commandments, even very important ones like observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher, to fulfill it. Interestingly, pikuach nefesh originally referred to the act of removing rocks that have fallen on top of another person. This is an activity that would ordinarily be prohibited on Shabbat but which is required if it might save someone’s life. If it’s permissible to move rocks on Shabbat in order to save someone in danger, shouldn’t it be permissible to contribute bone marrow? Assuming that contributing your bone marrow is potentially life-saving, and assuming that there are no risk factors that would counsel your refraining from doing so, it is a highly worthy act to perform.
Yes, but what about organ transplants? As you suggest, Jewish law teaches us that the body should be buried soon after death. It’s ordinarily a violation of Jewish law (known as nivul ha-met, the “desecration of the dead”) to tamper with a body by, say, removing an organ. But if that act is done in order to save another’s life (or, by extension, restore that person’s health), then it is permissible. (In fact, it is hard to call it a “desecration” at all.) If, say, a person’s heart, lungs, kidney or liver can continue to live in the body of another human being, then they needn’t be buried with the dead body. Yes, if they are transplanted, those body parts will not be buried with the person in whom they originally resided; but by being transplanted they become part of a new person.
I have met people who have donated organs to others. It is clear to me how profound an act of hesed
(lovingkindness) this is. I have also met people who have received organs donated by others. I know how grateful they can be. If it is within your power to donate organs to alleviate another’s suffering or prolong his or her life, I would urge you to consider doing so. If you have any doubts, just take a look at the rather moving video on the home page of the Halachic Organ Donor Society: http://www.hods.org