NBC recently removed an episode of the TV series "Nurses" because it portrayed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family as racist and misogynistic.
The family is portrayed as refusing to accept a bone transplant for their son out of fear that it might come from a woman, a ‘goy’ or, in particular, an Arab: The father says they won’t accept a "dead goyim leg from anyone. An Arab, a woman."
NBC pulled the episode after some Jews decried the episode as antisemitic, defaming ultra-Orthodox Jews by presenting them as racist in terms of their views on organ donation.
Sadly, there is enough truth in the representation in "Nurses" that Orthodox Jews should be upset not by how they are portrayed on TV, but how their fellow Jews behave in real life. I say this from experience.
For the last 19 years, I have been the director of an Orthodox Jewish organ donor society whose mission is to encourage Jews to donate organs to the general public. I have succeeded in convincing 341 rabbis to sign organ donor cards, agreeing to donate their organs to anybody in need of a transplant regardless of religion and gender. Over the past two decades I have traveled to Jewish communities in 17 countries delivering 909 lectures to more than 53,000 Jews about halakhic (Jewish law-compliant) support for organ donation.
Many of the ultra-Orthodox people I have met do indeed hold racist attitudes towards gentiles and consequently refuse to donate organs to them. Unlike in the TV show, however, the racism is not so much in the form of not agreeing to receive organs from gentiles (although I have encountered that as well) but rather in not agreeing to donate organs to gentiles.
While I found this phenomenon mainly in the ultra-Orthodox community, it exists to a limited degree amongst Modern Orthodox Jews as well. Unfortunately, this attitude is not just found among their rank and file, but among their leaders.
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Ultra-Orthodox rabbis from England to Australia, Brooklyn to Bnei Brak, have told me they refuse to donate organs because, among other reasons, they are afraid the organs would go to a gentile. To be fair, most of them refuse to donate organs in general, meaning not even to a Jew. The not-so-subtle racism, in spite of the story-line in "Nurses," comes mainly in the form of taking organs. Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to donate organs are happy to receive them from gentiles. In fact they prefer it.
The London Beth Din, for example, ruled in 2009 that a brain-dead beating-heart cadaver is a living human being, and thus it forbade the Jewish community from becoming organ donors because it would be akin to killing themselves.
While this is an understandable reason not to donate organs, the moral problem is that the London Beth Din allows Jews who are in need of a transplant to accept organs from ‘other people’ who in the Beth Din’s eyes are just as alive.
In other words, for the London Beth Din it’s OK to shorten the life of a gentile but not that of a Jew. For the sake of moral consistency, if it believes a brain-dead beating-heart cadaver is a living human being, it should forbid Jews from donating organs and from receiving organs. But it doesn’t.
Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who until his death in 1995 considered the most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel, openly wrote in a religious responsa that Jews should travel abroad for organ transplants because the likelihood is that the organ will be coming from – in his perspective – a living gentile, and not a living Jew.
A Chabad rabbi I met in Australia, who touts himself as a bio-ethicist, told me he is fine with Jews taking organs from gentiles but prohibits Jews from donating to them because the Tanya, Chabad’s key religious text, states that gentiles have only animal souls, not human souls. A Modern Orthodox rabbi from New York City with degree in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University was surprised that I’m an advocate for organ donation and asked me how I "get around the issue that the organs might go to a goy."
Antigentilism is a thing in the Orthodox Jewish community, and the community needs to confront it. How big of a problem it is I have no idea, but I have seen enough anecdotal evidence to make me queasy. Antigentilism is not as pernicious as antisemitism, but in the field of organ donation it costs human life.
Antigentilism is the Haredi elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about for fear that it will fuel the flames of rising antisemitism. So instead of coping with it, Jews end up shooting the messenger instead of listening to the merits of the message.
Instead of protesting NBC, Orthodox Jews of all stripes should be protesting rabbis who prohibit organ donation to the general public.
If Jews want to deprive antisemites fodder for antisemitism, they should demand from their community rabbi to stand from the pulpit this coming Shabbat morning and clearly express support for organ donation from Jew to gentile. And if the rabbi refuses to do so they should fire him. Synagogue search committees should ask potential rabbis what their stance is on organ donation and what is their attitude towards non-Jews before hiring them.
Saving human life – all human life – is of paramount importance in Judaism and if anti-gentilism is getting in the way it should be rooted out. The Orthodox Jewish community, like all communities, has a problem with racism. The question is: What is the community itself willing to do about it?
Robby Berman is the founder and director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society whose mission is to save lives by increasing organ donation from Jews to the general public