Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q. I seem to remember a Bible story concerning someone who was commissioned to build a house, and in the building of the structure he used inferior material, only to have the person who commissioned him for the project present the house to him as a gift. Do you know of the story and where it appears in the Bible?
-- J., via email
A. The story I think you're referring to is from the New Testament (Matthew 7:24-27), where we read: "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it." (King James Version)
What Matthew is teaching, in the name of Jesus, is the deep and universal truth that what we believe and what we do must be built upon true and enduring values, not just upon the passing trends of society. In a time when "new and improved" is a popular advertising slogan, we religious folk must stand up for the "old, tested and true" values that have formed and sustained us for thousands of years.
Science must always favor the new. Religion must favor the old. This is often uncomfortable to those who want everything to change, but it offers comfort and hope to those who want some things to remain as they've always been.
Q. While I consider myself a Reform Jew, it's still important for me to carry on the traditions I grew up with and pass them on to my children. As a child, my mom had a laundry list of things "Jews Don't Do." Two entries I vividly remember were, Jews don't get tattoos and Jews don't donate organs.
I do plan to sign on the organ donor line when I renew my license next month. I'm pretty sure mom told me that Jews don't donate organs or even get autopsies because we don't desecrate our bodies before burial. What's your take on this issue? Isn't it a mitzvah to give life? I think it's the best gift you can give, and it doesn't cost a dime.
-- S., Old Bethpage, via email
A. There's a big "no" to tattoos and a big "yes" to organ donations, according to Jewish law in all its versions. The problem with tattoos is that they violate the commandment prohibiting "self wounding." The big idea of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that God owns our bodies. There are many ethical consequences of this belief. One of them is that we're not entitled to deface what God owns. To use a trivial but apt example, it's kind of like making a hole in the wall of an apartment you only rent. However, even Jews with tattoos can be buried in a Jewish cemetery and can be called up for a blessing of the Torah. It's just not a Jewish thing to do.
As far as organ donation is concerned, there is a Jewish law prohibiting desecrating a corpse, and a law requiring burial within 24 hours of death if possible, but these laws don't apply to organ donation. Donating an organ is not a desecration of a corpse but the use of a corpse to bring healing to the sick, which is a commandment so important that most other ritual prohibitions are set aside.
Organ donations are not commanded, but they are an act of heroic compassion that ought to be part of all our post-mortem directives. I've told my family that I want all my organs donated, although I'm highly skeptical anyone would want a piece of poor old Rabbi Gellman's decrepit body. In any event, it's important to settle this matter before illness and death so surviving family members don't have to debate and speculate about the true wishes of the deceased.