Defining the Moment
Defining the Moment
Understanding Brain Death in Halakhah
Rabbi Dr. David Shabtai
A “work of remarkable scientific and theological understanding” – Medical Ethics & Me. Read full review
Defining the Moment: Understanding Brain Death in Halakhah presents the halakhic approaches to understanding brain death. Modern halakhists are indeed split on whether brain death qualifies as death, with many rejecting the notion and others embracing it as meaningful. Answering this question is of life and death importance, since organs can only be transplanted from dead donors. Brain death is accepted as death in most legal systems. Ever since the concept of brain death was introduced in the 1960s, philosophers, ethicists, and religious leaders alike have argued its meaning.
All modern halakhists rely on the same medical facts and their conclusions stem from the same rich halakhic corpus, yet lead to diametrically opposed conclusions. While long debated in the halakhic literature, a ‘conversation’ between the various approaches is notably lacking. Defining the Moment puts these approaches into perspective by comparing and contrasting them, helping the reader explore how each approach relates both to the science as well as the halakhic tradition. It neither adopts nor advocates a particular perspective, but instead guides the reader through understanding the spectrum of opinions, creating a ‘conversation’ between them.
Defining the Moment begins by placing ‘brain death’ and organ donation in their medical contexts, explaining the basic biology and physiology of death and reflecting on modern research in the field. In then analyzing ‘brain death’ from modern ethical perspectives, it allows the layperson and medical professional alike to appreciate and understand current medical and social approaches to the issue.
In transitioning to the halakhic discussion, Defining the Moment begins by analyzing the primary sources of Hazal. While few in number, the three Talmudic sources are rich in the depth of their discussions. Each is presented and analyzed in detail, guiding the reader to an understanding of how each position approaches these sources. This section concludes with thorough discussions of two important responsa of Hakham Tzvi and Hatam Sofer that, while writing too early to discuss ‘brain death’ particularly, are the focal points for much of the modern discussions.
The modern debate is then presented, analyzed, and discussed in detail. Chapters are devoted to the positions of R. Moshe Feinstein, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, R. Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach, and R. J. David Bleich and those agreeing with his approach. Because of R. Feinstein’s monumental influence on this discussion, each of his relevant four responsa are analyzed separately, carefully analyzing and elucidating his approach.
Balancing saving the recipient’s life against the sanctity of the life of the potential donor, even if short-lived, is both monumental and terrifying at the same time. This carefully choreographed dance puts the sanctity of both the donor and recipient’s lives at its center and champions it as a halakhic ideal, advocating maximizing life whenever possible. It is a wonderful example of how the timeless Halakhah relates to our modern, highly technological, and scientific lives. Defining the Moment offers a window into this exciting and challenging chapter in the living halakhic process.