More than a year ago, I made one of the most consequential decisions of my life: more important than pursuing a course of doctoral studies, or becoming a social justice activist, or even being ordained as a rabbi. I wanted to consider my existence in this world in a new way. I made myself vulnerable, stepping beyond the bounds of my comfort zone. I let down the protective mental and spiritual shields that protect my body. After moral deliberation over the course of a decade, I decided to donate one of my kidneys.
Up to that point, I’d spent a considerable amount of time reading about the issues that affect people’s decisions and attitudes towards organ donation. The lack of verifiable data about the effects of the process and the apprehension about the procedure itself fed into my emotional uncertainty about proceeding. To supplement my medical research and extensive Torah study on medical ethics, I absorbed the words of moral philosophers like Peter Singer, John Rawls, Jeremey Bentham, and Immanuel Kant (to name a few), who dedicated their careers—their lives—to studying what underlies moral decision-making. While I knew that this path was morally correct, I still felt uneasy at the weight of the decision.
I was nervous. The thought of lying on a gurney and having doctors cut into me to remove one of my precious organs and place it into a stranger’s body raised many questions (especially for someone who had never had surgery before):
- Is this procedure safe?
- Would the pain – physical and emotional – be worth the trouble?
- Post-operation, will I be a changed person, and if so, for better or for worse?
- What if one of my family members needs a kidney in the future?
- And what if, God forbid, something happened to me: what would happen to my family?
These hypotheticals floated in my mind for years, and I had real moments of doubt and fear. But I knew that a million people over the world die every year because of organ failure; in my heart, I believed that if I could shift the perception of the procedure for myself then, hopefully, the broader Jewish community might come around to being more accepting of living kidney donations as a concept. I consulted with my closest family members and friends, and brought my moral deliberations to their definitive conclusion. I made arrangements to donate my kidney to a stranger.
My kidney found residence in the frail body of a sweet young man, an artist who had been orphaned at an early age and had been sick for decades and on dialysis for years. Once the procedure was over and we were both in recovery, I reflected on what had happened: more than a series of arteries, nerves, and sinew was donated. In a metaphysical way, I felt as if a part of my soul had been transferred into his. With one relatively simple act, a life was spared further agony and uncertainty; when the doctors took my healthy kidney and placed it inside the unhealthy body of another, my kidney became something eternal, an intangible spiritual vessel.
As humans, we are here to repair a broken world. Each one of us holds in his or her body the potential to affect the imbalance of readily available organs, through action on the issues surrounding organ donation and advocacy for those who need transplants. Some of us can even donate a literal piece of ourselves towards something greater: saving the life of a loved one, or a stranger.
Not all of us will literally donate our physical organs while we are alive, but we can all contribute in our own ways: donating financially to organ donation nonprofits like Renewal and the Halachic Organ Donor Society, or registering to be organ donors post-mortem. (For more information, you can also read my pieces in The Atlantic and The Guardian suggesting that we open a regulated marketplace to incentivize kidney donation.)
After several weeks of recovery, I was back to work and active. The world kept spinning. But millions of people still languish on waiting lists, waiting – possibly in vain – for an organ donation; vulnerable people are dying needlessly.
While donating an organ seems daunting and overwhelming, it can also be one the most impactful acts a human can do in his or her short life. To be sure, in my experience, I have gained far more than I have given. Indeed, my life has been enriched.
(For more details about my experience, please see my ELI Talk.)
Grok With Us questions:
Would you ever donate an organ? Do you know anyone who has donated an organ or received a donated organ?
What does your faith or family tradition say about organ donation?
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of Valley Beit Midrash, Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute.
Rabbi Yanklowitz’s writings have appeared in outlets as diverse as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the Guardian, among many other secular and religious publications. Rabbi Yanklowitz is a sought-after educator, social justice activist, and motivational speaker, as well as the author of ten books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics.
As a global social justice activist and educator, Rabbi Yanklowitz has volunteered, staffed trips, and taught across the world, including Israel, Ghana, India, France, Thailand, El Salvador, England, Senegal, Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, Argentina, South Africa, and Haiti. Rabbi Dr. Yanklowitz has also served as a rabbinic representative, facilitator, and speaker at the World Economic Forum in Geneva and Davos. Rabbi Shmuly’s religious journey was filmed in the Independent Lens/PBS documentary “The Calling.” Rabbi Shmuly earned a masters degree from Harvard University in Leadership and Psychology, another masters from Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, and a doctorate from Columbia University in Moral Development and Epistemology. He obtained rabbinical ordination from the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and two additional, private ordinations in Israel. He has twice been named one of America’s Top Rabbis by Newsweek. In 2016, The Forward named Rabbi Shmuly one of The Most Inspiring Rabbis in America. In 2016, the Forward named Rav Shmuly one of the 50 most influential Jews. In the same year, Yanklowitz was selected for the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship in Cross-Cultural Leadership and Innovative Entrepreneurship at the University of Cambridge