Dignity in Debate
Rabbi Basil Herring
Rabbi Basil Herring is Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America. He previously served as Executive Chairman of The Orthodox Caucus and the rabbi of congregations in Kingston NY, Ottawa Ontario and Atlantic Beach NY. His books include Jewish Ethics and Halakhah For Our Time: Sources and Commentary.
Note: In what follows I speak only for myself, not in my capacity as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America. I also do so as the author of a halachic textbook that includes an extensive discussion of Brain Death in Halacha that pointedly did not take a position on the issue.
Few would reasonably deny that when it comes to our dealings with each other, we Jews are a particularly passionate people. Of course, holding strong convictions is a good thing – and might even be a sine qua non to survival when other nations have disappeared – to the extent that it generates uncompromising commitment to our deeply held beliefs and moral principles.
But when passion leads us to intolerance and invective, it not only diminishes the cogency of our positions, it more ominously undermines the very warp and woof of the moral fabric that holds us together as a community and people.
Take the debate in the wake of the much-discussed Brain-Stem Death paper of the Vaad Halacha of the RCA. The paper was criticized in sensational language as, among other things, being one-sided and replete with errors, and advocating immoral policy positions. I will not gainsay the claim that the paper was not a dispassionate treatment of the question of what are the correct criteria to ascertain that the halachic moment or moments of death has occurred. Why should distinguished authors, after years of research, withhold their evaluations of evidence? But let no one be misled: far from being a hatchet job, as its critics would have us believe, the paper was a serious treatment of a highly complex and confusing topic, at the intersection of halachah, science and medicine, incorporating careful – even if not perfect – research by thoughtful people in presenting numerous conflicting viewpoints.
Why then did some of the paper’s critics level patently false charges? Why did certain media outlets provide a willing platform for certain incendiary sentiments? I will grant that they meant well, believing as they do that their view saves lives. Or, in the case of the media, that providing a forum for vociferous communal debate and open argument over life and death issues is a valuable public service. But good intentions do not justify questionable means, such as the willful misrepresentation of opposing views. Cases in point: in spite of what its critics would have us believe on the following specific matters, the research paper is explicit in saying that it does not purport to represent RCA policy, and the paper itself does not take a formal position; not only does the paper never state that brain death is reversible, it describes a case cited in favor of such a statement and concludes that it is irrelevant; the paper makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles and certainly does not permit or advocate taking specifically Gentile organs; furthermore, the paper never considers taking another’s life to save one’s own or accepting organs in general. A close reading of this carefully worded document will bear out all these points.
What is especially regrettable in the current brouhaha is that a few passionate individuals took a very sensitive and complex halachic issue and laid it bare in the most charged terms in front of the whole world, Jewish and Gentile, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, halachically knowledgeable or otherwise, to advance their own positions, while misrepresenting the views of others, including those of leading Torah authorities in America, Israel, and Great Britain. Some critics in their zeal even took to public rabbinic petitions (in themselves, the digital equivalents of what many deride as demeaning rabbinic broadsides) that included accusations of ethical insensitivity on the part of highly respected rabbinic leaders. Are signed public petitions by rabbis, many of them non-expert in these matters, to say the least, now to be the mechanism by which halachic debate and decision is to take place in our community? It is certainly important that the larger community be aware of and even participate in informed halachic discussions dealing with important topics of current concern, such as this. Of course, we should and do welcome the democratization and sharing of Torah knowledge and personal opinion. Thank God for the Internet and its diverse voices. But – for heaven’s sake – there is a time, a place, a tone, and an appropriate forum for everything. And when it comes to a halachic issues such as this, inflammatory sound-bites and accusatory petitions, even if attached to rabbinic names, are not among them.
Which brings me to an essential point regarding the Vaad Halacha paper on Brain Death that many have overlooked. It was an internal RCA document, never submitted to the public or the media but only shared with RCA members, intended to further internal rabbinic discussion that would empower local rabbis to better discuss, debate, and decide how they would guide their congregants and others in extreme situations. The RCA includes vigorous, informed, and respectful internal debate on such topics, and the subject has been and continues to be discussed internally. Dissenting views are heard (see for instance the RCA sponsored blog, Text & Texture, edited by R. Shlomo Brody, who himself holds a pro-BSD view). The RCA was attempting to empower local rabbis by providing them an additional tool rather than a centralized psak. But the critics instead portrayed it as a fully-formed official RCA policy and directive, and proceeded, in incendiary terms, to conduct a concerted campaign against it, its authors, and the world-renowned poskim whose views they did not agree with, even demanding its retraction, while claiming the ethical high ground. Lo zu ha-derech, this is not the way.
In this cacophonous debate, there is an overarching ethical imperative, and it is this: in contemplating the mysterious moments that separate life and death we need to show a humble recognition of our own limitations, with due sensitivity to the doubts and ambiguities that are so often characteristic of the truth. In such complex matters, we ought to trumpet our own certainties less, while being more open to hearing from informed and thoughtful others, before coming to our own considered conclusions. Respectful dialogue, hearing other viewpoints, acknowledgment of doubt and uncertainty, accepting the oft-paradoxical nature of truth and reality – these are not signs of weakness or confusion, but of wisdom, courage, and ethically responsible discourse. Would that more in our community – rabbis, medical professionals, social activists, journalists and concerned individuals throughout the Jewish community –understand and embrace such a path.
Now that is a cause that we ought by all means support, with all the passion and vigor at our disposal.
(Next: Rabbi Michael J. Broyde)