Friday, January 14, 2011

Brain Death and Halachic Debate: Not for Public Consumption

If you follow such things, a major debate has recently grabbed headlines over the sensitive and complicated issue of brain death. In layman's terms, it boils down to this:
Doctors have determined a criteria that defines a person as being "dead" even though her heart continues to beat. Thus, doctors can harvest the organs of the "dead" person, saving the life of another sick individual waiting for a heart, lung, liver, etc. Removing the (still beating) heart doesn't actually kill the patient as she is already legally "dead".
As soon as organ donation became a medical reality, Jewish scholars began debating whether Halachah considers the medical definition of death to be acceptable, or not. If not, then harvesting organs is nothing less than murder. Judaism never sanctions the killing of one to save another. Regarding the debate of the issue itself, a few points stand out in my mind:
1. This is a very, very complicated, intricate halachic issue. As a former pulpit rabbi, I have no compunction admitting that it's way, way above my "pay grade." (and I've got to say, far above the level of halachic expertise of many rabbis taking a stand on the issue.) I'm happy to answer questions about pots and pans, niddah, Shabbat and the like, but brain death? Sorry, I know enough to know that I don't know. More confusing though, is the fact that rabbis that I respect argue about the issue. Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the Av Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council is in favor of the brain death criteria (or so I've heard) while Rabbi Herschel Schacter is against. What's a pulpit rabbi to do? How is he to decide which of his revered teachers is correct? In essence the pulpit rabbi is forced to make a choice he is neither equipped nor trained to make.
2. Personally, while medical science has made great strides and can do great things, what does medicine have to say about the soul? How do doctors have the right to determine when life begins and when it ends? To me, this seems much more of a theological issue than a medical one, and I find the reliance of many on the medical literature, as advanced as it may be, troubling.
3. Even more troubling to me is the way this debate has become a public issue, subject to pronouncements, proclamations, and public pressure. On one side we find the Rabbinical Council of America, whose Vaad Halachah released a report announcing its findings on brain death (basically taking the anti-brain-death position). Who were they releasing it to? What was the purpose of the release? What authority did the halachic board actually have? It seems like the Va'ad Halachah has no authority, because after an outcry, the RCA released another statement essentially saying that the Va'ad Halachah wasn't really official RCA position, telling us that,
The RCA takes no official position as an organization on the issue of whether or not brain stem death meets the halachic criteria of death. The study disseminated by the Vaad Halacha was the product of many years of exploration by that committee and was meant to serve as an informational guide to our membership.
Really? Then why release it to the public? Why is it freely available to anyone who wants to download it? If it was really only "informational", then why do so many feel that it's such a one-sided document?
Then, another group of rabbis felt the need to issue a statement responding to the RCA report suggesting that while both positions are halachically valid, (here's the money quote):
To adopt a restrictive position regarding donating organs and a permissive position regarding receiving organs is morally untenable.
I get what they're trying to say. Personally, I strongly disagree with their point. But I question the forum and the language. Who is this statement really for? What's the point of calling someone with whom you disagree "morally untenable" - essentially "immoral" on a blog, trying to make a public statement. People often don't get the nuance. They just remember the label.
This type of public name calling isn't the way to debate halachah, because it's not a debate of the issues on its merits. You can yell and scream inside the Beit Midrash - even a virtual one - but to open the debate over a very complicated and sophisticated issue - to the public, only opens us to criticism from...that's right, the British Medical Association. And I quote:
Doctors have criticised the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, for issuing an edict that organ donation as currently practised, and the carrying of donor cards, are incompatible with Jewish law.
Really? Do rabbis have the right to criticize doctors for medical decisions that they make? What right do doctors have to chime in on the London Beit Din's religious ruling? Are they suddenly experts in Jewish law?
I guess that's what you get when you argue halachic issues in the public arena. Suddenly everyone - even non Jewish doctors - are gedolei hador.