As is widely known, Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper donated a kidney to a man he didn’t know. His brother Avishai did so as well. It’s not just the Tropper brothers. In religious Zionist circles, kidney donation has become an ideal – part of an ethos. It’s so highly valued in this community that, as a reader wrote in a letter to the editor in Haaretz Hebrew edition this week, in synagogues the joke is that it’s a requirement for receiving an aliyah (the honor of reciting the Torah blessings).
The organization that is active in the community is Matnat Chaim, which recently announced “its” thousandth kidney donor. But the relevant government agency is the National Transplant Center, known as Adi. Laws regulate kidney donations, providing compensation to donors, including medical and emotional support.
How many kidney transplants from living donors have been performed in Israel? According to the Health Ministry website, last year there were 273, including both anonymous donations and ones to relatives.
Live-donor organ donation is a complex and broad subject that also includes sperm and egg donations for fertility treatments as well as so-called altruistic surrogacy. It features in horror fiction, philosophy and art – from Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s book “Never Let Me Go” to the current deranged Netflix show “Squid Game.”
All of this is on the verge of a revolution because science is developing technology that in the near future will make it possible to “grow” organs from living cells. Then several of the important ethical questions in the field will be replaced by others, in the absence of a specific person to make the organ donation.
But before that happens, it bears taking a look at the social and ideological setting that kidney donations are coming from and to attempt to understand why the religious Zionist and Haredi communities have embraced kidney donations as an ideal. Why did this donor culture that the Tropper brothers represent develop? Why did it become a religious fashion? What is prompting it? What need is it addressing and what is its significance?
Is the concept that such a donation raises the person and society up to a higher human level good for society or instead a kind of social mania with extremist potential? Can such an ethos assert dangerous pressure on members of the group?
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First of all, to address the obvious, some Jewish religious authorities and religiously observant individuals oppose organ donations from the dead. Let’s also set aside for the moment situations in which someone decides to donate a kidney to a first-degree relative – to a son or daughter, for example. Any parent would understand such a situation. Few parents would refuse to give a kidney to their child.
But when it involves a social phenomenon, it appears to relate to an ethos, comparable to the period in Israel’s past, prior to the peace treaty with Jordan, when it was all the rage among some young people to sneak across the border to Petra, risking their lives and then returning in all their glory.
Religious altruistic donations of kidneys don’t involve the kind of accolades accorded to combat soldiers, to hikers who reach Petra or the adoration of saints (which is a non-Jewish custom). Self-sacrifice and giving of oneself in this way confer social power on the donor in the form of appreciation and respect from the community and from his sociological peer group. In this case, it’s also a communal social statement that here is a religious Israeli of the kind that we aspire to be.
It appears that in adopting such an ethos, which is laudable in itself, religious Zionist society is taking another step in a dangerous direction in which self-sacrifice that goes as far as removing an organ is an act signifying total devotion. And that in turn signifies moral superiority.
Over whom? Over all those who are not prepared to remove an organ from their bodies to demonstrate their moral superiority – meaning everyone else.