Hannah Arendt argued that during a time of collective moral failure there is no room to consider appearances—you just need to do the right thing. Though she never knew Zell Kravinsky, she might have been talking about him.
A Philadelphia real estate mogul whose charitable donations over the past five years add up to $45 million and one of his own kidneys, Kravinsky doesn’t worry about what kind of giving is socially acceptable. A rich man isn’t supposed to give away so much of his wealth that he himself can no longer be considered wealthy. A husband and father isn’t supposed to give a body part to a stranger. That’s crazy! It’s extreme! But in an era in which Americans can’t pony up the cash to save millions of children from curable diseases, but still somehow find $8 billion a year to blow on cosmetics, Kravinsky isn’t interested in such comfortable moral mediocrity.
In 2002, Kravinsky gave $6.2 million to the Centers for Disease Control to help fight Chagas, a disease that kills 50,000 Latin Americans per year. The CDC had never received so much money from a private individual, but it barely dented Kravinsky’s wallet. So he kept giving. By the end of 2003 he’d donated almost everything he had and was living on the $50,000 to $60,000 a year he made from his rental properties.
But donating money wasn’t enough for him. More than 3,000 people die every year waiting for healthy kidneys, while 300 million Americans walk around with spares. Donors stand less than a one in 4,000 chance of death—not much worse than the mortality involved in such popular cosmetic procedures as liposuction. To Kravinsky, the decision was obvious: Holding onto a spare kidney was little better than murder. So in July of 2003, he gave one of his to Donnell Reid, a 29-year-old African-American woman studying for a degree in social work. Reid had already been on dialysis for eight years. Without Kravinsky, she would likely have died on the waiting list.
Kravinsky compels us to see giving away a kidney not as an act of self-sacrifice so much as a kind of 21st-century circumcision: By subjecting yourself to this bodily alteration, you accept the moral requirements of the community. Old-school circumcision symbolized assuming the yoke of 613 rules. This contemporary circumcision instead symbolizes—and, more importantly, exemplifies—the acceptance that moral ideas are real and have attendant responsibilities. “Welcome to the community,” it says. “Now get to work.”
Next page: Radical novelist Orhan Pamuk