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?
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,” 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.
Practically speaking, if your parents order you to transgress either a positive or negative commandment, you must disregard the order and fulfill the commandment. 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.
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,” and our sages tell us that “he who saves even one life, it is as if he saved the entire world,” 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.”
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.
However, other commentaries point out that the Babylonian Talmud seems to disagree 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.” 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.
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. Furthermore, according to many authorities, one is (in most circumstances) prohibited from doing so.
Due to the present-day low fatality rate, the risk factor may not apply to kidney donations. 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. 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.
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 necessarily affect or benefit them.
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.