Today I visited the Gordon Museum of Pathology, part of Kings College London at Guys Hospital. Before I explain why, let me say what a brilliantly engaging individual the curator is – an interested and knowledgeable person who welcomed me very warmly.
I was there to address a first meeting of the Council of Muslim and Jewish Physicians about Organ Donation organised by the Joseph Interfaith Foundation. A distinct lack of Jewish students was more than compensated for by a number of Muslim medical students. My co-presenter was Sheikh Khalifa from the Islamic Cultural Centre in London and we were joined by a three senior Muslim and Jewish doctors.
It always comes a surprise to listeners how many commonalities there are between Islam and Judaism in our traditions. The jurisprudential processes in our traditions are often quite similar, with common issues being interpreted in very similar ways. I must also say there was something quite wonderful talking about Organ Donation surrounded by donated body parts which have been preserved to ensure that medical students (the museum is not open to the public) have access to every possible organ in various states of disease and good health.
My presentation seemed to go ok, though having to give a rapid explanation of Jewish denominations, the different understandings of the nature of commandedness, authority and rabbinic interpretation, all in the space of a 20 minute presentation was no easy task. One of the doctors also probed both me and Sheikh Khalifa about measures of risk and how our respective legal traditions assessed whether a risk was acceptable (or not).
A recurring theme was the need for us all (and by us I mean those of us who frequently come into contact with death) to talk about death and discuss end of life decisions – and alongside this a conversation about consent also came up. We were all asked if we had donor cards and whether we had discussed it with our relatives and spouses. I am indeed signed up to the donor register – a convenient update to the digital records was afforded to me when I bought a new tax disc. This also prompted conversation with my wife about the topic. We’re used to talking about funerals, bereavement and death at home – it’s part of a rabbi’s life. It doesn’t mean the pain of loss is lessened in any way, but it does mean that we are drawn to be matter-of-fact – you can’t beat around the bush when it comes to explaining why you have to drop everything to sit by the bedside of a dying man or forgo a Sunday morning lie-in because there’s been a death in the community. I hope I have always dealt with the dead and the living with dignity and respect but there’s a reality to my work too.
It was clear to me that there is much more of a pastoral care/interpersonal role to be played than as interpreters of religious traditions (though clearly some sectors of the Jewish community will need the halakhic decision of their rabbi to proceed). There were also questions for doctors to present the case effectively for brain stem death (which is one area of major differences of opinion in Judaism) as being determinative of death – a quick search for ‘has anyone survived brain stem death’ in google will show you how quickly the media promotes a story that can also cause confusion for lay people. As an aside, advances in medical treatment mean that the process of death (which is not really an event) seems to be very elongated making families very ill equipped to understand a diagnosis.
Organ Donation is a mitzvah in my opinion. For some it is not a mandated commandment (a mitzvah) but a deed of kindness. For me though it is a simple way to ensure that even in death we are able to do something tangible to help another person. So sign up and talk to your family about what you’ve decided.
My favourite moment of the evening though was our ride back to the synagogue. Sheikh Khalifa joined me in the taxi and as the Muslim taxi driver told me about all the rabbis to whom he had given lift he started to tell me about Islamic intepretation of the story of Abraham and taking his son up the mountain to sacrifice him (known in Judaism as ‘Akedat Yitzchak’ – the binding of Isaac). Sheikh Khalifa and I just smiled at one another, allowed the front seat sage to continue his discourse and, as we dropped Sheikh Khalifa off at the Mosque, I think he was none the wiser who was in the cab.
For the record – this is the handout I prepared for the session: Organ Donation