Sunday I saw a news release announcing the death of…
…Rabbi Yossi Raichik, the 55 year old founder of Chabad's Children of Chernobyl project. Children of Chernobly airlifted over 2500 children from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after it exploded in 1986.
A couple of hours later, I saw a Chabad rabbi in the gym, a guy who knew Raichik personally. We haven't spoken since I was excommunicated 4 1/2 years ago. I wanted to tell him that Raichik had passed away. I didn't, though, afraid his anger at me would overcome his sadness at Yossi Raichik's passing.
I also knew Raichik. When I worked for a different branch of Chabad in Israel, he saw some of my advertising work and loved it. He loved it so much, he asked my employer for copies. My boss let him take copies of some page proofs after Raichik promised him he wouldn't use the ad himself.
This was a big deal to me because Raichik had several leading advertising and PR professionals on staff or retainer. His in house staff was the best of the best, but he liked my work more.
A week later, Raichik's group used a near-carbon copy of my ad in their glossy magazine – without attribution and to raise money for their own organizations, not the organizations I worked for.
Imitation (or, in this case, theft and then imitation) is the sincerest for of flattery.
Still, I was saddened to see Raichik passed away.
Then today, the Jerusalem Post reports the story behind the story of Raichik's death:
…Until his death Sunday, Chabad activists worked around the clock to secure a lung transplant for Raichik. Last Thursday a religious woman hospitalized after suffering a stroke became a candidate to be Raichik's donor.
However, the woman's family insisted on consulting with a leading rabbinic authority in Bnei Brak. By the time the rabbi finished making his own investigations the woman passed away, making the lung transplant impossible to perform.…
Haredi rabbis led by Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and supported by many hasidic rebbes and groups, have lobbied against brain stem death legislation. These rabbis and rebbes insist that only the complete stoppage of cardiac and respiratory functions signifies death.
Here is how I explained the issue 6 months ago:
…[B]rain stem dead patients do not recover. Without a respirator they will die within a few minutes, because the brain does not have the ability to tell the body to breathe at a level to support life.
To understand the problem, let's go back 100 years or so and see how death was defined by halakha.
When a person was thought to have passed away, a member of the Chevra Kadisha or the town's rabbi placed a feather near the nose of the body and watched intently to see if their was any breathing. If there was not, the person was declared dead.
Rarely, this method failed and an unconscious person whose breathing was very shallow and sporadic was misdiagnosed as dead. This accounts for the rare cases of "dead" bodies who "woke up alive" in their coffins.
Modern medical technology is far more advanced than the feather.
The halakha always was cessation of breathing determined death.
Today, because of respirators and other medical equipment, a person unable to breathe on his own can be kept alive. So how should halakha view this?
In two ways.
First, if the patient can breathe on his own, although that breathing is not really adequate to support life and the patient will eventually – in a few hours or days – die from lack of oxygen-profused blood and its related problems, that person should most always be kept alive. (There may be exceptions due to other serious issues like end stage cancer or the like.)
If a person cannot spontaneously breathe, and this is due to an irreversible brain injury that has caused brain stem death, that person may be disconnected from life support (carefully, under controlled circumstances and rabbinic direction). His organs may be taken for transplant.
This is the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of the RCA's committee, of most National Religious and Modern Orthodox rabbis, and, it now seems, of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and other leading Sefardic rabbis.
(Here is a video of Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler explaining brain stem death. He also explains the process for determining brain stem death and the difference between brain stem death and a deep coma.)
Despite overwhelming medical and halakic proof that brain death is halakhic death, Israeli haredi rabbis like Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyahiv disagree. They view the harvesting of organs as possible murder. It may be interfering with a gosses, a person in his death throes. And halakha, they are quick to point out, forbids us to touch a gosses or to hasten his death. They do, however, accept the possibility brain death is death.
Confused by the issues of life support and artificial respiration, they want to use cardiac death as the gold standard for halakhic death, even though cardiac death was never the halakhic standard.
What appears to have happened in Yossi Raichik's case is that the "leading rabbinic authority" in Bnei Brak had to consult with other, perhaps, "bigger," rabbinic authorities – like Rabbi Elyashiv.
But in practice, Elyashiv & Co. do not allow Jews to donate organs that must be taken while the heart is kept artificially beating and the lungs artificially breathing.
Israel has a tremendous shortage of donor organs, and the world's organ banks will not accept Israeli patients because Israelis do not donate organs.
Therefore, Yossi Raichik's real options were as follows:
1. A secular Jew becomes brain stem dead and his family agrees to donate his organs, and those organs were a match for Raichik.
2. An Arab becomes brain stem dead and his family agrees to donate his organs, and those organs were a match for Raichik.
3. Buy organs on the black market in India or China. (Difficult to do when one is far too sick to travel.)
4. Return to America and wait for a transplant there. (Difficult to do when one is far too sick to travel.)
5. A Traditional or Modern Orthodox Jew who supports organ donation becomes brain dead and his organs were a march for Raichik.
Unfortunately for Yossi Raichik, his matched organs resided in the body of a brain stem dead woman whose family sought haredi rabbinic advice before donating, and Raichik died.
Chabad's policy on brain stem death generally follows other hasidic groups and is therefore closely aligned with Rabbi Elyashiv's opinion.
Some of Rabbi Elyashiv's views on this matter are admirable, most notably his strong statement against using organs harvested from Chinese political prisoners.
Elyashiv and his supported have launched a public campaign to, in essence, stop most organ donations in Israel and in haredi communities worldwide. That there are many rabbis who view the issue differently does not concern Elyashiv., who has labeled organ donation "murder."
But in real life, his policy kills Jews. It's latest victim was buried today. He left behind a wife, six children and many other friends and relatives.