A Breakthrough Transplant


This week, the news reported that doctors in NYU successfully transplanted a pig’s kidney into a human being for the very first time.

In the United States alone, more than 90,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant. Essentially, they are waiting for someone else’s tragedy — for a motorcycle accident or some other tragic incident — to bring them salvation. These 90,000 people are those whom the doctors predict will actually recover from a transplant. There are a half a million patients on dialysis who are not even included in the list. 

Every day, 12 people waiting for a kidney die of their illness. In Israel, there is a recent trend among observant Jews to donate kidneys to people they don’t know; there are families in which both the husband and wife donated kidneys to strangers. Needless to say, the report from NYU is a major medical breakthrough. 

But why a pig?

The answer is that the a pig’s organs are quite similar to those of a human in size and form — far more similar than monkeys or chimpanzees. This was already known in the Talmudic era; the Talmud relates that when Rabbi Yehuda heard there was a virus spreading among the pigs, he declared a full day of prayer and fasting for the entire community, during which they prayed to G-d to protect them from this illness. Why were they so afraid of illness among pigs? Because their internal organs are quite similar to those of humans; they were afraid it would spread to the human population (Taanis 21b).

Scientists have long attempted to insert animal organs into human beings, but there have always been complications of some sort or another, so this time, Dr. Robert Montgomery decided to do the experiment on someone who was brain dead.

The critical moment is when the kidney is connected to the human’s bloodstream. If the kidney turns blue, it’s a sign that the body rejects it; if the kidney turns red, it’s a sign of success. This time, the kidney turned red. It immediately began functioning like a regular kidney, and there were no signs of rejection.   The doctors kept the person alive for another 54 hours to watch the kidney function, and the body did not have any rejection.

Everyone in the medical field agrees that this is a massive breakthrough in the field which will lead to much greater opportunities for animal transplants — not only in kidneys, but also in other organs, even hearts.

Moral Questions

The question which immediately arises: does Jewish law permit the insertion of a pig’s organ into a Jewish body? The answer is that eating a pig’s meat is forbidden, but using its organs for a transplant is definitely permitted and is actually a mitzvah, as an act of saving a life.

Now, everyone understands that in this procedure the pig loses his life for the sake of the human being. Obviously, animal rights activists immediately spoke out against it; they claim that there are better ways to deal with the issue. For example, the law at the moment states that whoever wants to be an organ donor must make his wishes explicitly known. They suggest that the law be changed: everyone should be a potential donor, unless they explicitly state otherwise. In that case, there will be enough kidneys to go around.

I find that interesting; in the United states alone, 120 million pigs are slaughtered every year, yet they’re worried about those few animals which may be able to save a human life.

Animal Slaughter in This Week’s Parsha

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Abraham our forefather. Abraham built three or four altars throughout his lifetime, but only once do we find that he offered a sacrifice. Rashi states so explicitly at a later point in the Torah: “Abraham built 4 altars but only offered one ram” (Balak 22:4) (See also Hisvaaduyos 5746 vol. 1 pg. 523).

This single sacrifice took place during the sacrifice of his son Isaac, which we read at the end of the Torah portion. The angel tells Abraham, “don’t touch the youth,” and then, “Abraham looked up and saw a ram stuck in the bushes. He took the ram and offered it as a sacrifice instead of his son” (Vayera 22:13).

However, although we don’t find Abraham bringing many animal sacrifices, he wasn’t cheap about slaughtering animals when it came to hosting guests. In the beginning of the portion, when Abraham discovered his three guests, “Abraham ran to the cattle” to have animals slaughtered; Rashi tells us that he slaughtered three animals to serve each guest the tongue “in mustard.” (18:7)

The Kabbalistic Explanation

Why do we eat meat? Or, better said, what is the justification for slaughtering living animals?

According to Chassidic teachings, G-d created the world in four basic categories: Domem, tzomeiach, chai and medaber.

Domem refers to all inanimate objects, such as stones, earth, and water.

Tzomeach refers to all vegetation.

Chai refers to all living beings which are not humans; all animals, birds, and fish.

Medaber are the human race.

Each category derives sustenance from the categories below it. Vegetation derives its sustenance from the inanimate — from the earth in which it grows, and from the water which gives it life. Animals derive their sustenance from the inanimate and vegetation; they drink water, and eat vegetables etc. And the human being, the pinnacle of creation, derives his sustenance from the inanimate, from vegetation, and from animal life.

Moreover, as the Rebbe once wrote in a letter:

“The order and purpose of Creation is that the inanimate, in addition to its task of serving its own end, should sustain plant life, and thereby be elevated to the “world” of the vegetable; and the latter should sustain, and thereby be elevated to, the animal world; and all three — animal, vegetable and inanimate — should support and serve mankind, and thereby become part of, and be elevated to, the world of the human being, “the chosen one of all creatures” (Chai Elul 5744. sie.org/2518585).

Every category was created to serve the category above it. Or, more accurately, it helps the category above fulfill its G-d-given purpose.

What is the purpose of the highest category, the human being? Who are we supposed to serve? Our purpose is to serve our Creator. As long as we serve our creator and fulfill our purpose, we have the moral justification to derive our sustenance from the lower three levels; we can eat meat, vegetables, drink water etc.

But the moment that, God forbid, we don’t fulfill our purpose, we lose our right to eat meat, and even to eat vegetation. we even lose our right to step on a stone. In Hayom Yom, the Rebbe cites a teaching of the Previous Rebbe: “At present, the inanimate is mute. But there will come a time when . . .  the inert will begin to demand: If a man was walking along without thinking or speaking words of Torah, why did he trample upon me?’”

In other words, we will reach a level of awareness in which we will feel ashamed to trample on a stone. We will ask ourselves: do I actually have the right to step on that stone? Am I better than it? The stone fulfills its purpose in life; but have I fulfilled mine?

The task of every human being is to spread the awareness of the Creator and to further the cause of an upright and just civilization. 

Let’s make sure we fulfill our mission.

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