Symposium on the Ethics of Brain Death and Organ Donation: Introduction

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The most important issues are often the most contentious. As Orthodox Jews passionately concerned with both tradition and continuity, we vigorously debate how to navigate from the past to the future. In the latest revival of the twenty-plus year controversy over brain death, sparked by a recent paper by the Rabbinical Council of America‘s Vaad Halakhah (link – PDF), lives are literally in the balance and emotional stakes are high as the definition of death and the viability of much of organ transplantation is decided.

I have invited respected rabbis, doctors, law professors and ethicists to write Op-Ed style essays exploring the religious, medical, legal and ethical aspects of this issue. These experts have taken the time, on short notice, to write thoughtful discussions on brain death and its implications to the Orthodox Jewish community. Due to the limitations in including as broad a group of contributors as possible, I unfortunately could not invite any of the authors of the RCA paper.

This TorahMusings.com symposium on brain death has two goals, neither of which is resolving the debate. The first is to conduct a calm and respectful discussion, lowering the temperature of debate so we can remain a united community even while disagreeing. The second goal is to present to the public experts who voice their learned opinions in a non-technical fashion. They may or may not convince you that they are right but they will hopefully convince you that reasonable people can disagree on this complex topic.

The symposium will last approximately two weeks and will contain approximately eight Op-Ed contributions. The media is welcome to republish any of these essays with the author’s approval.

Gil Student, e-mail, TorahMusings.com

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

56 comments

  1. First of all, great idea!

    But what could this possibly mean:

    “Due to the limitations in including as broad a group of contributors as possible, I unfortunately could not invite any of the authors of the RCA paper.”

  2. Joseph Kaplan

    I’d also like to know what that mysterious sentence about the RCA authors means. Did you ask any of them? If not, why not? If yes, what did they say? This project sounds like a great idea, but why start it with an open question?

  3. Moshe Shoshan

    looking forward.

  4. Glatt some questions

    Rabbi Bush owes all of us some explanations and answers about the many questions that have been asked about the paper.

  5. In short, Rabbi Bush offered to write for the symposium but I had to turn him down. One of the other “big name” contributors said he would only participate if R. Bush would not. I don’t want to go into more detail here so as not to reveal the name.

  6. And we wonder why debate in the Orthodox community always generates more heat than light? One writer refuses to participate if another does? And you concede to this absurdity?

  7. Is this part of the “calm and respectful discussion”?

  8. Shachar Ha'amim

    “One of the other “big name” contributors said he would only participate if R. Bush would not. I don’t want to go into more detail here so as not to reveal the name.”

    I would humbly suggest that you quickly find another 8th contrubutor and drop this “big name”

  9. I have kept out of this debate because, in this area, I know even less then the topics I normally comment on. That’s saying something. However concerning giving in to one person for refusing to write if an author of an important paper for the Orthodox community gets a chance to advance/justify/defend/retract his own views, there I feel I can comment. And my comment is: What gives? It seems quite inappropriate.

  10. I would humbly suggest that you quickly find another 8th contrubutor and drop this “big name”

    I presume the 8th would then be R’ Bush. 🙂

  11. There’s no way to win but I chose to be open to the accusation of leaning towards the proponents of brain death and organ donation.

  12. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: I appreciate your dilemma, but cannot agree with your decision not to include R. Bush. You cannot allow anyone a right of veto. If the person declines, say you asked Rabbi X but he declined.

    Dear Abby always said that if you invite X to your simhah and his reply is “I will not come if Y is there,” you should respond “I hope you change your mind. We would love to have you with us.”

  13. This is great: “respected rabbis, doctors, law professors and ethicists to write Op-Ed style essays exploring the religious, medical, legal and ethical aspects of this issue.”

    So we’re not interested in Torah and halachah, we’re interested in a complete range of non-Judasim based criteria, presented by people who may or may not be qualified to say present opinions based on Torah knowledge, so that the pseudo-knowledgable and ignorant public can make it’s own decision.

    And the people on the Vaad Halakah who “went through the sugya” are banned from the discourse.

    I don’t know what this is, but Yiddishkeit it certainly is not.

  14. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: I hope you will reconsider. Note that everyone who has commented so far disagrees with you decision. And, by the way, we can guess who the “big gun” is.

  15. Even if he doesn’t respond here, he should be encouraged to explain himself somewhere else. He sure has a lot of explaining to do…

  16. >There’s no way to win but I chose to be open to the accusation of leaning towards the proponents of brain death and organ donation.

    Man, you need to learn how to play the game. You’ve already acknowledged that this process is tainted. Who is going to take it seriously when they know that a whole bunch of politics went into it, and worse, they don’t know what the politics were? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much intellectual integrity should be assumed in this project?

  17. See here for this response to the Va’ad paper by Rabbi Shlomo Brody and Prof. Baruch Brody in the Forward

    http://forward.com/articles/135146/

  18. Joseph Kaplan

    Gil, R. Bush is really a very important player in this story and the fact that he’s willing to write says good things about him. And I say that as, as you know, a critic of the RCA paper. To forego his participation because one unnamed (though I have a guess who) “big gun” won’t participate if R. Bush does is a serious mistake. I would understand if you don’t want to give us the name of the big gun, but I don’t really understand giving him (I assume it’s a him :-)) a veto.

  19. I guess I’m missing something, since there is no give nad take between the authors, why should anyone’s participation make a differnce to anyone else?
    KT

  20. I can’t imagine any one person whose contribution to this discussion would be more valuable than R. Bush’s, if he is willing to engage the methodological critiques that have been raised here and elsewhere. You must reconsider, Gil.

  21. I have nothing substantive to add to this discussion, but I do want to second all those who protest giving in to this “big gun,” and add one more voice to all the commenters who, as Lawrence Kaplan noted, disagree with this move.

    Please reconsider! I think an opportunity to hear Rabbi Bush’s voice on this would be essential!

  22. Although many will say I should not be one to talk, I think that r. Gil should be given credit for providing a forum and encouraging discussion. While we may disagree with his decisions, we should give credence to his rationale. I too have been guilty of not being dan laf zechut.

  23. I also vote for allowing R. Bush to respond, in spite of losing the “big gun”

  24. Kudos on pulling this together.

  25. Kudos to you for putting together this effort and enabling us to hear (read) a range of voices. Even if the arrangement doesn’t change, I would encourage you to reconsider the policy of allowing certain participants to influence the selection of others. (Granted, this would make sense for a beit din, but for this kind of symposium? What are the halakhic pros and cons?)

  26. When is this going to be taking place? If it the big gun who speaks that he is the only who knows and understands what brain death is we heard enough from him. A person who works hard to put together a 110 report we would like to hear from him since he has agreed to write as well. Their is a an extremely “bright” Rabbi and harvard grad who recently made aliyah I hope that he is included in the Symposium.

  27. Lawrence Kaplan

    Joseph: I would further guess that your guess is the same as my guess.

  28. I made the decision when I didn’t think R. Bush would contribute, so I thought I wasn’t losing anything. That changed but I could not revoke my decision because the participation of the “big gun” opened the door for other participants to join. Wait until the end to judge the value of the symposium. In truth, I don’t want this to be a battle between two figures anyway.

    The door is always open for R. Bush to respond to Dr. Stadlan and other criticisms. But it will not be during or a part of the symposium.

    For what it’s worth, R. Basil Herring has already submitted his contribution but as an individual and not as a representative of the RCA.

  29. Since R. Bush has agreed to write for you, and you have agreed to publish, just not as part of the symposium, why don’t you go a step further than just leaving the door open for him and explicitly ask him to write a guest post. And post it ASAP, or at least as soon as possible after the symposium ends.

  30. And, BTW, even if R. Bush had not yet agreed, you were giving something up — your editorial control and (to some degree) editorial integrity.

  31. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: Why didn’t you think that Rabbi Bush would contribute? And if you had already agreed that he would not contribute, why did yu ask him afterwards? Me-ikkara mai ka savar, ule-be-sof mai ka savar? You deserve credit for organizing this, but your allowing anyone a veto was a mistake, even if an understandable mistake, and leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

  32. why the secret of who will be writng?

  33. No secret. Just not everyone has given in their essays yet and I don’t want to announce their participation until I get it.

  34. Just like that, my comment disappears.

    To reiterate, everyone is going to know and not merely suspect who the big gun is.

  35. This so-called symposium is just a collection of articles, right? The only one who is losing credibility here is Gil himself. Bad call, Gil. I too was thinking of WWDAS (What Would Dear Abby Say?)

  36. >>The only one who is losing credibility here is Gil himself.

    And the big gun who would not appear next to R. Bush.

  37. Gil,
    Important contribution of developing this important symposium.
    Also a good learning experience.

  38. I’m extremely curious who the big gun is now that everyone else seems to know and I don’t. I guess I’ll figure it out.

  39. I think it is interesting that at this point there are more questions for the circulation advocates than for brain death camp, at least among the commentors here. By the way, are the participants planning to engage in the discussion in the comments?

  40. Dr Stadlan: probably because many of the commentors are in the brain-death camp, and already understand that position. However, a chance to engage with the cardiac-death proponents was offered and then withdrawn.

    If the big gun is who I think it is, hasn’t he had numerous articles both now and in the past stating his position, and his opinion of the cardiac-death position?

    I would hope that even if R Bush does not participate, there will be proponents of cardiac-death who can present more convincing arguments than “this is the way it has always been,” or “this is the majority position.”

  41. R’ Thanbo,
    Thank you for your kind words. You formulated the concept well – “This is the way it has always been” – is indeed what Chatam Sofer states in defining death in his responsum. The question is how to apply Chatam Sofer’s responsum into the case of brain death. RMF interpreted Chatam Sofer to mean a brain dead patient is dead, whereas RSZA interpreted Chatam Sofer to mean that a brain dead patient is potentially alive. See my comment in the “Death by Neurological Criteria” forum, Dec. 26 at 11:00 a.m. Thus, we are left with a safek, and for any safek regarding piku’ach nefesh, we must desecrate Shabbat to save the patient (and all the more so to avoid potentially murdering the patient), as per the mishnah in Yoma 83a. Indeed, the gemara in Shabbat 129a records a dispute between Mar Zutra and Rav Ashi whether to desecrate Shabbat for a lady who has just given birth in a certain situation. The gemara asks – how should we pasken this question? Answers the gemara, because it concerns piku’ach nefesh we must desecrate Shabbat, contrary to Rav Ashi’s opinion. But this does not detract from Rav Ashi’s august standing as a tzaddik gammur and as a leading exponent of the Oral Torah. Likewise, we must desecrate Shabbat to save the brain dead patient, contrary to RMF. But this does not detract from RMF’s august standing as a tzaddik gammur and as a leading exponent of the Oral Torah.

    To be fair, the brain dead patient is probably dead. RMF holds that the brain dead patient is definitely dead. Even RSZA remarks that the brain dead patient is probably dead (Shulchan Shelomoh, Erkei Refu’ah II, p. 40). But “probably dead” is not sufficient when it comes to piku’ach nefesh. We need absolute certainty that the patient is dead.

  42. I thought the main issue was in terms of transplants, which is the much thornier problem of “whose blood is redder” – do you risk killing this one or letting that one die?

  43. Lawrence Kaplan

    jon: Your not being able to figure out who the “big gun” is is almost as bad as my not knowing who the vulcans were!

  44. R’ Thanbo,
    Yes, you are right. Thank you for correcting me. The issue is as you have expressed it.

  45. I am more interested in reading the articles of the contributors than in either speculating who was not invited to participate, who didn’t want to participate or in commenting on any of the articles in question. I prefer not to comment on this thread until I have seen all of the posts in their entirety. As of this date, most of the comments on this thread read like regurgitations of prior posts on this issue.

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