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Can I Donate My Kidney Against My Parent’s Wishes?

Can I Donate My Kidney Against My Parent’s Wishes?

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Question:

Recently, I read about a woman who selflessly donated her kidney to someone who was very ill and in dire need of a transplant. The story touched me deeply, and I too want to save someone’s life by donating my kidney.

My problem is that my elderly mother is adamantly against my doing this. She argues that charity begins at home, and that a relative might need my organ in the future. “What if I would need your kidney? Or your only daughter would need it? Who would we turn to, and how would you feel then?” she argues, even though neither she nor my daughter has any kidney illness.

I know that donating a kidney is a big mitzvah. But I also know that honoring parents is a commandment. I’m wondering: am I allowed to disregard her opinion and still donate my kidney?

Answer:

As you correctly point out, there are two mitzvahs which seem to be in conflict here—honoring one’s parents, and donating an organ. In order to resolve this conflict, we need to better understand the parameters of both of these mitzvahs.

Let’s start with the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim—honoring one’s parents.

Although it is included in the Big Ten, honoring one’s parents does not supersede other mitzvahs. The Torah states, “Every man shall revere his mother and his father, and you Honoring one’s parents does not supersede other mitzvahsshall observe My Sabbaths. I am the L‑rd, your G‑d,”1 juxtaposing the observance of the Sabbath with the reverence of one’s parents. The verse is teaching us that although one must honor his parents, at the same time one still needs to “observe the Sabbath” and follow G‑d’s commandments. After all, both the child and the parents are equally bound to honor and follow G‑d’s mitzvahs.2

Practically speaking, if your parents order you to transgress either a positive or negative commandment, you must disregard the order and fulfill the commandment.3 Additionally, if your parents request that you do them a favor while you have another mitzvah to perform that you can neither delay nor delegate, you must do the mitzvah and disregard the honor due your parents, since both you and your parents are duty-bound to fulfill the commandment. If you can, however, you must delegate or postpone the mitzvah, and honor your parents.4

In light of the above, if there were a straight-out commandment in the Torah to donate organs, then the answer would be simple, and that obligation would supersede the obligation to honor your parents. However, that does not seem to be the case.

Is there an obligation to donate your organs?

Note: The following discussion applies specifically to live kidney donations. Other types of organ donations (specifically, postmortem ones) are more complex and beyond the scope of this discussion.

People were created with two kidneys, although they can survive with just one. This allows a healthy person to donate one of his kidneys to someone suffering from renal disease. In some situations, a kidney donation is the only means of saving the patient’s life. The question is: are we obligated to donate a kidney to save someone’s life?

While the Torah commands us, “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,”5 and our sages tell us that “he who saves even one life, it is as if he saved the entire world,”6 there are nevertheless limitations to when one is obligated to save someone else’s life.

Endangering Your Own Life to Save Others

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us of an incident in which Rabbi Aimi was captured in a dangerous area. Rabbi Yochanan stated, “Wrap the dead in his shrouds.” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish responded, “I will either kill or be killed; I will go with might and save him.”7

Based on this statement, some commentaries conclude that one The risk factor may not apply to kidney donationsis obligated to save a life even if in doing so he is putting himself at risk.8

However, other commentaries point out that the Babylonian Talmud seems to disagree9 with this conclusion. The Torah states, “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the L‑rd.”10 The Babylonian Talmud explains that the verse teaches that the commandments are meant to be kept when there is a certainty of life, but not when doing so will subject the person to the possibility of death.11

When there is a disagreement between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, the law follows the Babylonian Talmud; therefore, the law is that one is not required to put himself in danger in order to save someone else’s life.12 Furthermore, according to many authorities, one is (in most circumstances) prohibited from doing so.13

Due to the present-day low fatality rate,14 the risk factor may not apply to kidney donations.15 But according to all halachic authorities, there is no obligation for one to relinquish an organ in order to save someone else’s life. Additionally, if this is done at risk to one’s own life, sacrificing an organ is considered a foolish act.16 In the case of an organ donation that does not involve risk to one’s life, the current halachic consensus is that while it is not an obligation to donate the organ, it is certainly considered meritorious if one chooses to do so.17

Honoring Parents Vs. Donating a Kidney

Since we have ascertained that there is no halachic obligation to donate your organ, it would seem that you would be required to honor your mother’s wishes. However, there is an additional factor to consider.

While you are obligated to honor your parents and fulfill their wishes, most authorities hold that you are not obligated to do so if what they are asking is not something that will necessarily18 affect or benefit them.19

So, from a halachic perspective, it is really up to you to choose what you want to do—listen to your parents, or donate your kidney.

Footnotes
2.
Talmud, Bava Metzia 32a and Yevamot 5b.
3.
Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:12–15, 25.
4.
Ibid.
6.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
7.
Jerusalem Talmud, Terumot 8:4.
8.
Hagahot Maimoniot on Mishneh Torah, Hil. Rotzeach u-Shemirat Nefesh 1:15 (ed. Constantinople), cited also in Kesef Mishneh ibid. and in Beit Yosef on Tur, Choshen Mishpat 426:1. The reasoning seems to be (see Kesef Mishneh) that there is a certainty that the other person will lose his life without intervention, but it is only questionable about losing your own.
9.
Some attempt to reconcile the two Talmuds by explaining that essentially the Jerusalem Talmud agrees that there is no obligation to risk one’s life to save another. These commentaries explain that Reish Lakish did so not out of obligation, but of his own volition (see, for example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:174), or by explaining that Reish Lakish paid money to save Rabbi Aimi, but did not actually risk his own life. Thus, they explain that the Jerusalem Talmud agrees that one should not risk his own life (see commentary of Rabbi Chaim Heller on Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Prohibition 297). However, since most halachic codifiers seem to view them as two distinct opinions (see, for example, Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Nizkei Guf ve-Nefesh 7), this article represents them as such.
11.
See Talmud, Yoma 85b and Rashi ad loc., and Aruch la-Ner on Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a.
12.
See Sefer Me’irat Einayim (Sma) on Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 426:2, and Pitchei Teshuvah ad loc.
13.
Rashi on Talmud, Yoma 85b; Issur ve-Heter [he-Aroch] 59:38. See also Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 329:8. However, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 29, footnote #19 and gloss on that footnote, in which the Rebbe notes that while Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Orach Chaim simply that one shouldn’t put his life at risk to save another, without even mentioning the differing opinion, elsewhere (Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Nizkei Guf ve-Nefesh 7) Rabbi Schneur Zalman cites both opinions, and only in parentheses does he rule according to the second opinion (see She’eirit Yehuda 6, where he explains that when there is a ruling in parentheses, Rabbi Schneur Zalman had in mind to further review that ruling again at a later time). For a full discussion on whether one can or is obligated to put his own life at risk to save another, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, s.v. Hatzolat Nefashot, p. 347.
14.
While the risk of fatalities is reported to be about 2:10,000, kidney donations do cause a great deal of pain, illness and discomfort, and can even be a cause of death for the donor. See Arthur J. Matas et al., “Morbidity and mortality after living kidney donation, 1999–2001: Survey of United States Transplant Centers,” American Journal of Transplantation 3(7) (2003): 830–834. Also see Paul C. Kuo, Lynt B. Johnson and James V. Sitzmann , “Laparoscopic donor nephrectomy with a 23-hour stay: A new standard for transplantation surgery,” Annals of Surgery 231(5) (2000): 772–779.
15.
See responsum of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Pesakim 60; Minchat Yitzchak 6:103; Yechaveh Da’at 3:84. See also She’eilas David, Even ha-Ezer 6, note 4, where he explains that there is no obligation to perform an action that will cause one physical distress or cause one to become ill in order to save a life.
16.
See responsa of Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radbaz) 3:627, and Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:174.
17.
See Igrot Moshe and Yechaveh Da’at cited in preceding footnotes. See also Nishmat Avraham, Yoreh De’ah 349:2.
18.
Although in our case one of the reasons given was that someone from the family may need the kidney at a future time, since there is no present need for the kidney now, and it is just conjecture based on an unfounded fear of what will happen in the future, this is not considered a need that will necessarily benefit the parents.
19.
Responsum of Maharik 166, quoted in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:25; see also Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, responsum 54.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Miriam Mexico City, Mexico May 6, 2014

Very insightful. I stumbled upon this question and I loved the answer. It was very insightful and helpful.
Thank you.
Ps. Lisa, best of luck with what you decide to do! Reply

Chaya Lipschutz February 16, 2014

To Lisa "Wanting to donate a kidney" You are right Lisa. Not always family members can donate or will be the right blood type or a match.

Anyhow - you posted that you were wanting to donate a kidney. I know of many people who are in desperate need of a kidney. If you don't know of anyone who is in need and want to be matched up with someone, feel free to contact me. KidneyMitzvah@aol.com. My website is www.KidneyMitzvah.com. I made by the way Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Chabad of Teaneck's kidney match. He had contacted me that he had wanted to donate a kidney after seeing a posting I had in a Jewish internet group. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI February 16, 2014

Wanting to donate a kidney Your mother has a point, but at the same time, blood types have to match. That doesn't always happen in families. It's possible a family member might need a kidney transplant, and you need to consider that.

Organ donation IS a mitzvah, but it's not always possible to "keep it in the family." Reply

Feivel Yosef HaLevi Denver February 16, 2014

To Shoshana "Not every order from HaShem is what humans think it is. Is the organ donor program an Akeida?"

How beautifully & poignantly expressed. I'm reminded of how HaRav Binyamin Eisenberger of Boro Park advises kidney donors to recite the Akeidas Yitzchok three times on the day of the transplant, in addition, I believe, to the time it is already recited in the morning before korbanos (sacrifices).

It is a sacrifice of sorts. To make it personal, the Shabbos before my surgery was Shabbos Vayikra. I spent it in Kiryas Yoel with my dear Satmar friend, Rabbi M. Over that Shabbos he told me how fitting it is we are now reading about the korbanos since in a few days time I would be offering myself as a sacrifice for a fellow Jew. He also noted to me how kidneys were specifically mentioned in the parsha.

I don't believe it's meant to be frightening, but empowering: this form of giving is something very precious to Hashem.

May all the cholim be healed & may the only korbanos we know be in the third Beis HaMikdash! Reply

Chaya Lipschutz February 15, 2014

Not everyone needs to tell their parents! If you are an adult and in particular, not living with your parents, why bother telling them? Sometimes one needs to, for support. If you are living with them, hard to get away with it and might need to tell them. It was difficult for me - as I mentioned in another comment - I lived with my mother and the hardest part of my kidney donation -doing this behind her back. If you don't tell them and donate a kidney - what are they going to tell you - give it back? Of course not. If one is married in particular, they need to ask their spouse, as otherwise can upset the Sholom Bayis - peace in the home and G-d forbid break up a marriage. Anyhow - impossible to do this if you are married, without your spouse knowing. Reply

Chaya Lipschutz February 15, 2014

I didn't tell my mother I was donating a kidney. I donated a kidney to a stranger in 2005. My father, z"l, wasn't alive at the time. I had lived with my mother, a"h. I had to donate behind her back as she had a fear of surgery. And so she found out after I donated a kidney.I asked another kidney donor to inform my mother.. Feigie, a 23 year old woman, with a 1 year old baby, had donated a kidney 3 months earlier, came to my house, with her baby, and told my mother that she donated a kidney and she said, by the way, your daughter did the same! After I found out my mother was told, I spoke to my mother shortly after I came out of surgery. Since it was already done she took it well and she said it was "Min Hashamiyim." (It's from Heaven). I wish I can donate another kidney! Reply

Jill Lyons via jewisholney.com February 14, 2014

Donating Kidney I find it so wonderful that there are Jewish people willing to donate organs, even against a parents wishes. The arguments for and against are, in my opinion, all correct. I most likely will need a kidney one day. I believe there will be one available if it is meant to be. I do not think I could accept a kidney if I believed it was wrong to donate one. I wonder if those against organ donation would accept one, if they or their child needed. It is something to explore within ones self. Reply

Shoshana February 14, 2014

Motives I'm a mother. If my adult children approached me and told me they wanted to donate a kidney (or anything else they can live without) my first response - I am being honest - would be to come up with whatever guilt tool I could find to keep my children from harm. But we also must remember Avraham and Sarah. What did they teach us, their children? Not every order from HaShem is what humans think it is. Is the organ donor program an Akeida? Maybe. It would not exist if G-d did not want it to exist. It is a means to save a life. I expect that the person asking this question is an adult. Each one of us has a Neshama. Listen to it. I love my mom and I think I'm a great mom - but I can't say in all honesty my motives to keep my kids safe in dire straits are altogether altruistic. I'm human. Not to mention, it is unfair to say what if I need it one day? It's a proven fact most immediate family members are not matches. Whatever you decide, I wish you great peace and fulfillment. B'H Reply

TANIA HAMMER FAR ROCKAWAY February 13, 2014

Organ donation vs honoring parents I might add to that brilliant elucidation of this very complex subject, that the noble act of donating a kidney is only noble if everyone-including the writer -is absolutely satisfied with the whole process. I would not be happy to donate anything unless everyone around me is content that I am making the right decision, as it will be they I fall upon if/when things go wrong. Obviously you are somewhat close to your mom otherwise this wouldn't be a discussion, and if mama ain't happy ain't nobody happy. Unless someone in your family is in dire need of a kidney, I would say to go by the wisdom of your mother. She's been around a while, she knows a thing or two. In her twilight years, make her happy. This will not only give you satisfaction in this world, it will ensure a strong foothold in the next world. How great is that? Reply

Chava Mishulovin February 13, 2014

Dear Dr Stein, Feivel and Aviva: Dr Stein,
I find that fascinating that you mention the organs because I myself was just wondering about the significance of that. Whatever it is, I'm okay with 612 if it means that my single missing organ will prevent my fellow Jew from getting down to 0, may Gd save us!

Feivel,
Indeed the scars like proud war wounds, signs of beauty.

Aviva,
Once again, I appreciate your response.
Your words really touched me and I'm overwhelmed by your beautiful blessings. We are taught that whoever blesses, will be blessed in return! I'm glad I "met" you too :)
Re your second kidney going to waste: Gd forbid! If you were never presented with the opportunity to part with it, then obviously you were meant to keep it and may it serve you well till 180 in good health!
Let's never compare journeys but as someone who has seen and experienced far less than you, I'd be honored to hear more and learn from you. If you agree, Chabad.org can swap our email addresses. If not, that's swell too!

Peace :) Reply

Aviva Jerusalem February 13, 2014

to Chava Thank you for your answer. I think that you really did a great thing by donating your kidney and I hope the recipient has a long and healthy life.

I never thought of the second kidney as "extra" but it is an interesting idea. And also all the other facts that you wrote about kidneys are very informative.

I didn't mean that one has to decide who is "greater". But I am glad that you mentioned that your recipient was Jewish, though I was actually afraid to ask you, figuring that a thousand people would write in and say I'm a "raciest"!

So perhaps my second kidney is just sitting around here and going to waste all these years ( 70 ) . But at my age I would not even consider it, and don't think anyone would want it anyway.

Chava, you sound like a beautiful and very special person and I feel privileged to know you even though just from these posts. May H-shem bless you with long and healthy years and may you have a lot of naches and hatzlacha and bracha in everything you do. Reply

Feivel Yosef HaLevi Denver February 13, 2014

Informative Article! The sentiments Chava expressed ring true in my experiences, too.

Like her, I also traveled hundreds of miles to New York from the Western side of the country to put my kidney up for adoption to an unknown soul Heaven ordained was a match. I spent two nights in the hospital in some pain, and convalesced in NY for two weeks thereafter. All-in-all quite a small price indeed to pay & "relatively easy" in the grand scheme of enabling a fellow Jew to have a new lease on life!

Strange as this might sound, the pain itself was intensely joyful, because you knew it was the result of something so beautiful & miraculous- giving life!

I, too, regret that I cannot do it again, not an uncommon sentiment of kidney donors.

In terms of determining who is worthy of receiving one's kidney, I believe such judgements & calculations are beyond our jurisdiction altogether. Every human life is sacred and of infinite value.

Thank you for this extremely informative article, with halachic sources galore! Reply

Dr. Stein February 12, 2014

I'm disappointed with the ending of the article, it really over simplifies the final argument.

Saving one's kidney for a relative is definitely a benefit. Obviously also the mother has many other reasons for not allowing her son to donate his kidney. It would cause her severe distress if her son did not listen to her.

Also it should have been mentioned that every single operation has potentials for disaster.

Also there are countless articles on chabad.org that mention how according to kaballah the number of organs in the body are precise, 613 corresponding to the mitzvos. If that's true then there must significance in having all one's organs if there are is not 100% good reason in donating them. Reply

Chava Mishulovin February 12, 2014

Dear Aviva (continued) Indeed the second kidney ought to be termed "extra" because there seems to be no real need for it..if only to save the life of another!

As for wanting to know the character of the recipient, that is a fair concern. I know that my hospital would not match me with someone that wasn't healthy enough to receive a kidney, and that I had a team of doctors, psychologists etc advocating for my safety and well-being. Personally I could never claim to know who is "greater" than another, so as long as he was a Jewish brother of mine, I felt privileged and even obligated to share something I was not using to save his life.

I would never judge those who cannot or do not want to donate, but find anyone who has donated a kidney (to family or to a stranger!) and ask if they would be willing to do it again - with all the anxiety and pain and inconvenience - and you may be shocked at how many donors will emphatically respond "DEFINITELY!".

Peace :) Reply

Chava Mishulovin February 12, 2014

Dear Aviva Thanks for your response to my comment!

As an altruistic living kidney donor, I've felt that the hardships I've endured in the process was a relatively small sacrifice in exchange for saving a life. (Furthermore, there was no guarantee that the surgery would be successful, but I still felt that the sacrifices were minor in exchange for the hope it would work out.)

Living with one kidney poses no problem; in fact, many people are born with only one kidney! In case of renal attack, often both kidneys will shut down at once so having a second kidney often doesn't help the situation. (That's why thousands and thousands of people need a healthy kidney.) Note, living kidney donors go straight to the top of the waiting list if they ever do need a kidney later on in life.

As a young single woman, I was an ideal candidate for surgery as thank Gd my body was healthy and strong. My rabbi and doctor were absolutely not concerned that it could affect future pregnancies. Reply

Aviva Jerusalem February 12, 2014

relatively easy? I don't think that undergoing major surgery and the hard recovery period could be called "relatively easy". In addition to that, the donor is left with only one kidney and who knows how that will affect her/his future life? What if that remaining kidney should cease to function properly in years to come?

Also, if the would-be donor is a single woman or married woman in her
child-bearing years, the rabbis would usually tell her not to do it because of possible risks during pregnancy.

I am not saying that a person shouldn't donate a kidney in order to save a life, especially if it's for a family member. I just want to mention that the second kidney is not "extra" and people should carefully consider what they're doing.

If I would want to donate, I would surely want to know who the recipient is. Is he an alcoholic or a dope addict? Or is he a fine, upright individual leading a respectable and decent life that I would want to save, even at the risk to l myself? Reply

Anonymous February 12, 2014

Donating kidney Doesn't the emotional pain which the donation would cause the mother, matter? Reply

Andrew Kellner New York February 11, 2014

what about post mortem organ donations? The saving of a life is a great mitzvah and if one were to make it known either by advising a family member or signing an organ donor card (or back of driver's license) after one dies approximately 8 lives can be saved. Is there a prohibition? The information is confusing and it also seems to vary from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox. Reply

Chava Mishulovin February 10, 2014

Thanks for this article! I really appreciate this article on two levels.

Firstly, I've been wondering why we are not obligated according to Torah to donate kidneys.

Secondly, it raises awareness about the topic of kidney donation which so many people are unaware about..and unaware that they can save a life in a relatively easy way.

Thank you! Reply