Orthodox scholars grapple with brain death and organ donation
Orthodox Jewish scholars came together in an online forum to respectfully discuss a life-and-death topic that has recently roiled the community. The most important issues are often the most contentious. Orthodox Jews are passionately concerned with both tradition and continuity, and therefore 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.
TorahMusings.com 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.
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.
Participants include Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, President/CEO and Professor of Medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage, New York, and Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Anshei Chesed and the Young Israel of Woodmere; Dr. Kenneth Prager, Professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Director of Clinical Ethics and Chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee of Columbia University Medical Center; Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler, senior Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s RIETS and the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics and Professor of Biology at Yeshiva College; Rabbi Yaakov Weiner, Dean of the Jerusalem Center for Research: Medicine and Halacha; Rabbi Basil Herring, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, law professor at Emory University, member of the Beth Din of America, and chair of the medical ethics committee of the Weinstein Hospice; Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs of Agudath Israel of America; Prof. Steven H. Resnicoff, Professor at DePaul University College of Law and Co-Director of its Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies; and Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss, rabbi of the Young Israel of Hillcrest in Flushing, NY and adjunct assistant professor of biology at Stern College for Women.
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As this symposium closes, I offer the following reflection on what I’ve learned from both behind the scenes and in front. If the medical facts are sometimes unclear, even less obvious is how different thinkers relate to them. In a subject so widely examined, which countless articles and lectures have discussed, the lack of dialogue between parties is both surprising and confusing. While one may claim that a medical fact disproves another’s approach, the other may see the question as so irrelevant as unworthy of discussion. One claims the other mistakes science while the other states that he was simply misunderstood.
Rabbi Richard Weiss is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Hillcrest in Flushing, NY. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of biology at Stern College for Women. As a licensed physician in New York, he has worked clinically in the field of hospice medicine.
The determination of death is one of the most challenging bioethics issues of the past several decades. Various aspects of brain death as the definitive determinant and definition of death have been extensively and intensely discussed and debated in a wide spectrum of literature. Recognizing this point—that Judaism is not unique in its continued deliberations regarding this matter—can be very useful for all who are actively engaged in analyzing the halachic view of brain death. One citation, for example, which presents a wide variety of opinions in the secular, medical and general philosophical arena, is an article by David DeGrazia in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, entitled “The Definition of Death”, published October, 2007.
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