By: Rabbi Ari Perl
Rosh Hashana is a time for reflection, for looking back at the year gone by and ahead to one just beginning. It is also a time to think about life. And there is so much to think about this Rosh Hashana: lives lost and lives spared, lives taken and lives saved, lives of meaning and lives that matter. Amidst these weighty issues, Rosh Hashana 5781 also challenges our Jewish community to think deeply, and maybe even differently, about the gift of life and how it is given.
While most Jewish holidays revolve around a significant event in Jewish history, Rosh Hashana is different. No major event in Jewish history happened on the 1st of Tishrei. In fact, this holiday whose name means ‘Beginning of the Year’ is not even celebrated on the first day of the Jewish calendar (1 Nisan, which falls in the Spring). And the liturgy of Rosh Hashana speaks far more about “all God’s creations” and “all the earth’s inhabitants” than the Jewish People or the covenant at Sinai.
Where most other Jewish holidays speak to us as Jews, Rosh Hashana addresses us as members of the human race. The day challenges each of us to reflect on our standing before God, evaluate our relationships with others, and reckon with ourselves. Emphasizing its universal theme, Rosh Hashana is celebrated on a significant day in human history. This year marks the 5781st anniversary of humanity’s relationship with God, the day every human being was endowed with a soul or conscience, fashioned in the image of God. The sounds of the shofar (ram’s horn) so central to the day’s ritual are patterned after the cries of a Canaanite mother whose son is late in returning from the battlefield and meant to evoke the stirring of the human soul.
Rosh Hashana challenges us to reflect on our experiences over the past year through the shared lens of our common humanity.
The suffering of Covid-19 was not a Jewish tragedy; it was, and remains, a human one. And the spree of deadly anti-Semitic violence in December followed by the horrific deaths of George Floyd and too many others over the past few months reminded us that our Jewish community is not the only long-suffering victim of bigotry and hatred.
In reflecting on these shared human experiences of the past year, we recognize our community’s heroic healthcare workers who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to save human lives, and appreciate the similar acts of kindness that were reciprocated by men and women of all races and religions. Thousands of Jews (many from the ultra-Orthodox community) who donated antibody-rich plasma to save the lives of fellow human beings who were critically ill with Covid-19 and an overwhelming majority of our communal organizations instinctively stood in solidarity with non-violent protests against racial discrimination. These Jewish communal responses derive from a deeply rooted sense of equity toward our fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, while our Jewish communal conscience is hardwired to embrace the examples above, we enter Rosh Hashana 5781 burdened by a different iniquity of inequity.
Many of us have loved ones or close friends suffering from organ failure and in desperate need of a life-saving transplant. Based on regional demographics, more than 1,000 members of the NYC-area Jewish community are on the UNOS ‘waiting list.’ While it is easy to think of those individuals as waiting, hoping and praying for an ‘organ,’ in truth what they really need is a donor family who, in the midst of its own grief, makes the incredibly kind and generous decision to save lives by donating their loved one’s organs. While families can direct the donation of a loved one’s organ to a relative or friend on the UNOS list, most organ transplants result from a family’s noble decision to save the life of a fellow human being, with the recipient determined by a complex algorithm that is blind to race or religion. In 20+ years as a synagogue rabbi and now as an organ donation professional, I’ve never seen a Jewish family decline a suitable organ that could save their loved one’s life.
But while we are fully prepared to accept an organ that another family has so graciously donated, when members of the Jewish community have the opportunity to ‘pay forward’ that kindness to a fellow human being suffering from organ failure, Jews across the denominational spectrum decline to do so more than 70% of the time. Most of the time these declines are based on misinformation (all of Judaism’s liberal movements strongly support deceased organ donation, as do many in Modern Orthodoxy), occasionally on principled position (the rejection of brain death within Jewish law). Declining the opportunity to donate organs, for any reason, is a personal choice that must be respected, especially if the decision is an informed one.
But only if that decision is an equitable one that affirms the value of every human life.
Anyone who declines the opportunity to save a life through organ donation, for whatever reason, should be prepared to decline a donated organ that could save their loved one. And anyone who is prepared to accept the beneficent gift of a donated organ should, likewise, be prepared to donate organs to save the life of a fellow human being. While arguments have been offered to justify the position of ‘receive but not donate,’ they are, in my humble opinion, based on a mistaken understanding of the donation and allocation process. And while there may be some technical legal merit to such arguments, they fail to meet Judaism’s overarching standard of “doing the upright and good.”
So how do we fix the iniquity of inequity in 5781?
The Jewish cultural bias against deceased donation is a strong one and the principled rejection of brain death even stronger. At the same time, equity in the form of declining life-saving transplants is not consistent with our Rosh Hashana plea “to be inscribed in the book of life.” Instead, Judaism’s liberal movements have to redouble their efforts to break down the aforementioned cultural bias against donation through better education. And Orthodox Judaism in America must follow the path blazed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in 1986, when the public health crisis due to the scarcity of Jewish donors motivated a visionary group of rabbinic authorities to revisit the issue of brain death in light of new scientific developments and, ultimately, affirm its validity in Jewish law, a position that is being embraced by more and more prominent authorities in Israel.
As we reflect this Rosh Hashana on our shared humanity, let’s resolve to do our part in repairing our iniquity of inequity, thereby meriting inscription in the Book of Life- some as recipients and others as donors.
To learn more about Jewish perspectives on organ donation visit: LiveOnNY.org/Judaism
Rabbi Ari Perl is Vice President, Multicultural Engagement and directs the Jewish Community Engagement initiative at LiveOnNY, the federally designated non-profit organization that oversees all deceased donor organ donation in NYC and the surrounding NY counties. During his 20 years as a congregation rabbi, Rabbi Perl also served as VP of the Rabbinical Council of America, president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Dallas and as a federation board member. He can be reached at email@example.com.