On Organ Donation, Organ Sales, and Hypocrisy

Update Hoshana Rabba 5776: R. Yanklowitz has reversed his position and I publicly apologize for attacking him on this issue.


I wrote a post on Times of Israel accusing someone of hypocrisy for supporting organ donation but opposing free market organ trade. It was taken down.

Here is the full post.

Let me preempt this blog with a few sentences.

First, I’m clearheaded and calculated. I know what I’m writing, and I won’t take any of it back, except on one condition. My argument is those who support organ donation, or even themselves donate organs, but are against free market organ trade, are hypocrites. Shmuly Yanklowitz donated a kidney, and that’s great. He is also against free market organ trade.  (UPDATE: Here is proof.) He is therefore a hypocrite. If he supports free market organ trade publicly, I will take back my attack and issue an apology.

Second, I am not against organ donation. I’m totally for it, I believe anyone should be able to donate anything he wants to anybody, and I believe it is a positive mitzva (commandment from God) to do so. What Shmuly did was an objectively good thing, and he deserves credit for saving a man’s life at the risk of his own.

Third, I personally would not donate a kidney unless it was for immediate family (certain) or even extended family (possible), because I love them more than others. I would, however, sell a kidney of mine of it were legal and I needed the money to survive or for my family to survive. So I’m not claiming anyone would donate a kidney and it’s no big deal. It’s a big deal. He did it. Good for him.

Fourth, I carry a Halachic Organ Donor card (a card that says I am willing to donate upon death) in the event I am killed, Chas VeShalom (God forbid), and can donate.


Here’s the background. On June 19th an article came out on Times of Israel about Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who donated a kidney to save a Jew’s life. The article was, I would say, pretty much the mirror image of a hatchet job. It was so clearly structured to make Shmuly look like a saint with a halo that it’s almost hard to read in its saccharine sycophantic tone, showering Shmuly with praise and flattery.

I know Shmuly. Not very well, but I know him. For a year I learned with him at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which I left after a year to move to Israel. He continued on to get Smicha (Rabbinic ordination). I didn’t. Back then I was not a libertarian, but I was moving in that direction. I was always amazed by Shmuly’s undying energy. The man could never tire. He was like superman. He still is. But I was always uncomfortable with how he made use of his energy, mainly his politics. I hate politics. All politics. And Shmuly was always, and still is, very political. I would say it is his essence. See my article “Politics is a Dirty Word” for more on that.

I never identified with his interpretation of “social justice” and “civil rights” that seemed to me, even back then, to be covers for political power. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and said to myself it just wasn’t my taste. Or that I didn’t have the energy for all this stuff. That Shmuly was better than me and more dedicated, and I was just lazy. Or at least just normal. (Many people on reading this will conclude I’m just jealous.) I can think of very few people who can match Shmuly’s dedication. (In his case, dedication to politics.)

Well, then things started to click in my ideological life, and I found the principle that would guide me for the rest of my life. That principle is the Non Aggression Principle, otherwise known as the NAP. It is an extremely simple thing. It says no human being should ever exert violent force against any other innocent human being. Any human being who does, is, to the extent that he violates that principle or advocates violating that principle, immoral. The NAP is a principle most would agree with. It sounds fairly straightforward. But everyone always finds exceptions, especially Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowtiz.

Before I go into the more esoteric violations of the NAP that Rabbi Yanklowitz engages in, the most pertinent is this, and here, I admit, I am making an assumption, but I think it’s an accurate one.

Shmuly is against a free market in organs. He is therefore a hypocrite, because on the one hand he believes everyone who needs a kidney should have a kidney, but he doesn’t believe in allowing the market to reach the clearing price for such a good. The clearing price is the price where the amount of sellers equals the amount of buyers, where everyone willing to trade for a kidney can get one. When the market price for a good like a kidney is set below the market price, shortages develop. A shortages is when not everyone who is willing to trade for a kidney can get one, due to the fear of government reprisal by force. The government-mandated price for a kidney is ZERO, because one is only allowed to donate rather than sell.

When shortages develop in the organ market, people die. As the article on Shmuly and his heroic deed states, there are 101,662 people in the US awaiting a kidney transplant. Only 17,000 free transplants took place last year, most from deceased people. That means about 85,000 people, most if not ALL willing to trade for a kidney, will definitely have to go through another year of painful dialysis not knowing if they will survive, and many of them will die, because they cannot legally purchase a kidney.

But that’s just one side of it. There are millions of people in the world with extra kidneys. Shmuly is quoted in the article as saying God put two kidneys in his body, so he was meant to give one away. And what about the other 6 billion people on the planet with two kidneys? Should they not be allowed to sell one of them voluntarily to save a life? Is that somehow not as good as donating? Either way you’re saving a life. In one case you get money. In another case you don’t. Either way the life is saved.

The other side is the billion or more (I don’t know these numbers, I’m sure Shmuly does though) people starving around the world, or living in shanties off a dollar a day, mothers who throw babies they cannot afford to raise out into the forest to die. These destitute people, all of them have two kidneys. But they are not allowed to exchange them for desperately-needed money that they need to support their families and survive. And so their families die. And so do the people that could have used a kidney, that they were willing to exchange money for but could not do so for fear of government violence against them.

Being against voluntary organ sales violates the Non Agression Principle, because it employs force against innocent people who want to engage in a voluntary exchange, and threatens them with violence if they do. It also violates the NAP because it advocates violence against innocent sufferers of chronic kidney disease like the man Shmuly saved, because they would be VERY willing to purchase a kidney on the free market to save their lives, but if they do so they are threatened with prison.

Digressing a bit, Shmuly is also against so-called sweatshops in the Third World. Some of his political activity is directed against low-paying (by our standards) factory work in the Third World, and forcibly shutting it down. People who work in sweatshops at low pay by our standards are doing it because it is the best of all possible alternatives. The alternatives in those countries are prostitution or starvation. Those who advocate forcibly shutting down sweatshops without providing an alternative are condemning children to prostitution and death.

Shmuly is also an advocate of the minimum wage, and even raising it. The minimum wage makes it illegal to employ people whose labor is valued below an arbitrary number of dollars. It says that anyone whose labor is not worth X dollars an hour is not allowed to work. And if he works, voluntarily, for anything below that number, he or his employer or both will be put in prison. This hurts the weakest sectors of society, the unskilled, who must then resort to crime to survive because they cannot get jobs at all.

Shmuly is an advocate of “equal pay for equal work,” which is an Orwellian euphemism for “women should be paid more than they are on the free market”. If women are paid a certain amount for whatever work and voluntarily agree to it, stopping that relationship is immoral. The market price for whatever work by whoever is doing it is already set by free agreement. Pushing it higher by violent force will put women below that arbitrary point “discovered” by university academics, out of work, and hurt the weakest of them.

I am aware that Shmuly is not a malicious person. But the things he advocates for are malicious and immoral. He just doesn’t understand why. It’s not because he’s stupid. It’s because if he does recognize it, he will realize the damage he has caused throughout the years and he will have to face it and do teshuva (repentance), which is very difficult to do.

Are there ways to advocate for issues of true justice around sweatshops and women’s issues and wages? Sure. If a sweatshop is caught offering children $1 an hour but only paying $0.50, Shmuly could start an organization fighting for the rights of these sweatshop children to get the amount of money they voluntarily contracted for. If a woman is offered $30,000 a year to be a manager of whatever, Shmuly could start an organization that makes sure she gets the amount of money she contracted for, and make it only for women if he wants. That would be fine.

Shmuly could start an organization that helps low-wage workers gain more skills so their labor can be more valuable. But no. He simply wants to outlaw their jobs, because advocating for political force is so much easier than doing actual work that helps people economically.

And that takes me to the kicker. Here’s the kicker. Shmuly is an incredibly ambitious man. There is no problem with being ambitious. It’s a good thing. The problem is when you use unjust laws, like the law against selling organs, to further your agenda of political force.

Now, please, imagine for a moment that selling organs on the free market were legal. If you wanted to sell your kidney to a dying man on dialysis, nobody would stop you. Women can sell their eggs already. There is no difference. Now, in that case, the supply of those willing to sell a kidney at whatever price agreed upon greatly exceeds those who need them. One could even theoretically contract people to sell their organs upon death with the money going to their heirs. Imagine the enormous amount of kidneys that would result from just that.

If that were the case, if people all over the world, destitute starving weak people, could sell a kidney for money voluntarily, then how much publicity do you think Shmuly Yanklowitz could get for donating a kidney?

The answer is ZERO. The price of kidneys would be low enough that whoever needs one would buy one immediately rather than wait for a donor at the risk of his life on dialysis.

If Shmuly donated in a world where there was a free market in kidneys, donating one would just be viewed as idiocy. There would be no need to do so.

But instead, in the world we live in, it is illegal to exchange a kidney for money. That DOES NOT mean that nothing is exchanged when someone donates a kidney. Shmuly gets a LOT out of donating a kidney. He gets publicity. He gets recognition. He gets reverence. He gets a following. He gets all that, and more. These are very valuable goods. This is VERY valuable to him personally, because he knows how to use all of these goods. To further his goals. To broaden his name. To further his own career.

In the same way that computer parts are only valuable to someone who knows how to put them together, so too publicity is only good for someone who knows how to use it. But it is a good nonetheless, just like money, only less marketable, and only marketable by publicity experts. 

Am I saying it was not selfless of Shmuly to donate a kidney? It was certainly selfless, in a very shallow strictly monetary interpretation of selflessness. It was selfless only in the sense that he did not get actual money for the kidney. But he got other things, other goods, less marketable for others, but very marketable for him. He got a barter exchange – a kidney for publicity – instead of a monetary exchange – a kidney for money. Anyone can use money. Money is the most marketable good, by definition. But only very skilled people, like Shmuly, can use publicity. It is a very specific kind of economic good. He will take this publicity and exchange that for money instead to complete his barter, for donations to his causes, for better job opportunities as the Rabbi who donated a kidney, for further publicity advocating for violence against women and the poor, by outlawing voluntary employment relationships for women (equal work equal pay) and low-skilled workers (minimum wage).

But even then, it is not a moral problem to exchange publicity for a kidney. That’s perfectly fine and moral. What is IMMORAL, however, is to exchange publicity for a kidney when at the same time you advocate outlawing any monetary transactions for kidneys, thereby jacking up the value of the publicity you obtain from donating, and then using that to further your own goals at the expense of the starvation of others, who cannot legally sell their kidneys for money when they desperately need to do so.

For all these reasons, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is a hypocrite. He saved a life, yes, but that’s only because selling kidneys on the free market is illegal, and that is in violation of the NAP. If Shmuly donating a kidney were a truly selfless act, we would not have seen the article on Times of Israel. We would not have seen him claiming he knows what God wants from him, personally. We would not have seen a picture of him davening (praying) out of a Siddur (prayer book) right after surgery. We would not have known how many Smichas (Rabbinic Ordinations) he has or anything else and from whom. He would not have told anybody.

And if exchanging a kidney for money were legal instead of only exchanging a kidney for publicity, nobody would have cared.

And nobody should, except for the man he saved.



9 thoughts on “On Organ Donation, Organ Sales, and Hypocrisy

  1. Trying to understand. If hypothetically every American chose to allow kidney donation after death, wouldn’t that be a tremendous help to the 100,000+ Americans on the waiting list? The 10,000 per year kidneys donated from the deceased should rise to approx. 35,000 kidneys donated, and the list will shrink to almost nothing in a few short years.

    So, is it immoral to donate a kidney while advocating an increase in organ donars instead of advocating black market organ sales?

    • Yes it’s absolutely immoral! 100% immoral! Because you have to think of the OTHER side, the people ALIVE, that are starving right now, that NEED to sell a kidney to survive, or take their daughters out of the prostitution ring, or whatever. Encouraging people to donate on death is wonderful. But if you ONLY encourage that, you condemn hundreds of thousands of people alive, today, who need money, to death, by not allowing them to sell on the market.

      • Very interesting to think about it from the side of the people alive, selling their kidney. 2 questions though-

        1. If thousands of people sold their kidney, wouldn’t that drive down the market price of kidneys? So much so, that it wouldn’t be worth the risk, even to a poor family?
        And if you take that even further, if the price got too low for even poor people to sell at, then market price increases a little, but the number of people selling is still not a large number. Do we know that after the market settles, that the number of sales would be more that the 17,000 kidney donations that happen per year? I don’t know.

        2. If the point of free market is so that poor people can make money to survive, and rich/middle class can spend, isnt that exactly how some taxes on the rich/middle class work?

      • 1) Supply and demand meet each other at the equilibrium point, being the market clearing price. At that price, by definition, the number of sellers equals the number of buyers, and the market is cleared. The market price will change all the time, as all prices do. Whenever two people choose to engage in an exchange of anything, including a kidney, at the market price, the two have decided that the exchange is mutually beneficial. Otherwise they would not do it.

        2) In a free market, people engage in voluntary exchange that by definition benefits both sides, and that involves production on one side, and consumption on the other. Over time, there is more production than consumption, the difference being savings, and the economy grows in goods and services, and society gets richer.

        With taxes, the tax recipient gains without having to produce anything in an exchange. It is just taken and transferred. The one being taxed loses, and the money is spent on consumption, with no production on the other side. The economy shrinks, and everyone is poorer. This also creates political fighting and resentment and hatred. Taking money from one person by force and giving it to another is immoral.

      • Once the market is cleared, and production out numbers consumption, the price of a kidney will be a fraction of what they are today on the black market. This negatively affects those that currently sell on the black market. And I would imagine the ones selling on the black market are the ones that need the money the most.

    • From your last comment about culture being impossible without government funding, I would say you are quite on his team. You both like using other people’s money for what you want. Maybe you disagree on what you want. I’m hard on him because I have no one to answer to and I can write anything I want without the risk of being fired by anybody.

  2. The difference between building and dwelling [in God’s name].
    I’m sorry Rabbi self-mutilated to prove a point (even if he helped somebody, he proved the wrong point; there is an on going scandal about organ black markets and people being put in comma that they do not need for organ “doning”, online movies with donated organs that still move and anti-stress drugs that are used before prelevation which indicates the bodies may still have been alive, however it’s good they use those drugs rather than just taking chances on the person being able to feel the pain or not) situation caused mainly by the “moral high-standard of donating” and the immorality of “selling”. Organs being virtually free they are sent (by state, hospital, church you name it, social organizations lets say) to those receivers who are of “social importance” first (because officially those organs are free).
    While I am one of those who believe life was complex enough without the chaotic opportunities medicine brings (I think at this point doctors should stop wasting breath in taking Hippocrate’s oath, since they’re literally just skilled people at a certain business, more honesty less b.s.), since it’s possible and it happens it should definitely be taken out of the “social responsibilities of citizens” and other anti-human humanist myths, and be dealt with in privately between doctors and patients and maybe the private relationship will make doctors one day re-enter their business in humanity.
    It’s not the money that ruins the spirit of humanity but the lack of privacy. Why won’t people “of faith” admit it? Because it sounds “bad” and “wrong”? Because it sounds???
    Think about it! A doctor who un-officially steals organs (and gets black money or business privileges for it) is the one who needs public confirmation that what happened is moral if it’s “for free”, not the doctors who don’t do this thing. This campaign can only soothe the spiritual needs for such doctors who, if they would privately break rules, would have had to suffer intimately for what they’ve done, alone with God as they say. Now the public opinion has intervened with its generally known amoral violence for anything that sounds good and poetic enough.
    I’m sorry the Rabbi self-mutilated for the wrong cause (a wrong cause always leads to self-inflicted wrong some say).
    I hope the receiver realizes this is a second chance not the natural way of life as God designed it and is grateful, to the one who donated not to society and science and other general immoral unholy god “who made it possible”. The receiver doesn’t even have to be grateful to God. God is on the edge with the whole thing, this is obvious since drugs that allowed receiving organs have been discovered at great difficulty. God is right, I’m not advocating hating God if things get bad in one’s life and body, but what Rabbi said about 2 kidneys for an obvious purpose feels like heresy to me. However Rabbi suffered, hence I don’t judge him, but just because he suffered doesn’t turn his words and ideas into Truth.
    I hope both their bodies recover well.

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