Scientific ignorance can be dangerous, especially when people with inadequate knowledge are faced with and decide upon questions that demand expertise. So how is it that some rabbis, who are great Torah scholars but not necessarily medical experts, claim to overrule science in determining the moment of a person’s death, regarding questions of organ donation?
YU ethics expert censures rabbis over brain-stem death
Rabbi Dr. Tendler determined that brain-stem death constitutes halachic death; "our rabbis don't have the necessary background to understand it."
By JONAH MANDEL • Jerusalem Post
Scientific ignorance can be dangerous, especially when people with inadequate knowledge are faced with and decide upon questions that demand expertise.
So how is it that some rabbis, who are great Torah scholars but not necessarily medical experts, claim to overrule science in determining the moment of a person’s death, regarding questions of organ donation? A conference at the Bar-Ilan University on Tuesday, part of its Nitzozot study series, dealt with case studies in Jewish bioethical decision-making: brain-death and advanced genetic management.
In the early 1990, Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler – a biology professor and Jewish medical ethics expert at the Yeshiva University, and rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary – developed for the Rabbinical Council of America a health care proxy that determined that brain-stem death constituted halachic death. A few months ago, a special committee of the RCA, composed of members who do not have the scientific credentials of Tendler, backed away from its previous stance.
“We underestimate the effort needed to understand the advances in biomedicine, people who are trained – doctors, etc. – have trouble keeping up with the field,” Tendler told The Jerusalem Post at the end of the conference. “Our rabbis enter the field at its most advanced stage, without the background necessary to understand it.
“The idea that greatness in Torah is adequate to make up with this deficit in education, is erroneous. Lo bashamaim hi – the Torah is down on the earth. Therefore, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein waited two years before he could answer the question [on whether brain-stem death qualifies as death],” Tendler said of his late father-in-law, the supreme rabbinic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America and one of the greatest halachic adjudicators of the generation.
“During this time, in addition to info I provided him, he had personal contact with leaders in the scientific field,” Tendler noted.
“After seeing patient after patient who were brain dead, and the protocol according to which the death was determined, [Feinstein] was confident to say that breathing by machine was no evidence of life, nor was a beating heart.
“Death occurs in three stages,” Tendler continued. “There is organismal death, in which an organism no longer functions – that is brain-stem death. There is then organ death – but after the organism [the body in this case] dies, the organs stay alive for a period of time, enabling transplants. The third stage is cellular death – putrefaction. In Halacha, we are required to bury our dead early, to prevent desecration.
“Removing an organ [from someone organismically dead] to enable another person to live is not desecrating; rather, [it is] honoring the dead,” Tendler said.
Regarding the recent case of Avi Cohen, Tendler mused that “when people die, they all become haredim.”
The unobservant soccer star’s family decided to not donate his organs, despite a green light to do so from Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar. What swayed the family’s initial intention to live up to Cohen’s will, evident in his bearing an ADI organ donor card, were threats from a former soccer player turned haredi and his rabbi – that they would be murdering the father if they donated his organs.
I believe the real reason the RCA changed its stand on organ donation – which it did largely through lies and omission of opposing facts – is that Rabbi Hershal Schachter wanted that change made, and did not care how it was made.
Schachter is, I think, a person who has done more than any other to destroy Modern Orthodoxy, to take it from an open, progressive movement under a healthy Rabbi JB Soleveichik, to the right wing, neo-haredi monstrosity it is today.
He has done this largely by claiming he has the only direct pipeline to what Rabbi Soleveichik really believed. He carries this off by marginalizing the dozens of his contemporaries who know very well the Rav had did not exclusively hold the positions Schachter claims he did – often because the Rav told them personally to do something different from what Schachter claims the Rav's "position" was.
And now Schachter's disciples are playing the same game, using the same sophistry to rip Modern Orthodoxy further away from what JB Soleveichik made it.
One simple example:
The RCA's recent position paper on organ donation claims Rabbi JB Soleveichk's position was that branin stem death is not death. It cites a source who spoke with JB Soleveichik''s late brother Aharon, who allegedly told this source that his brother never would have supported brain stem death. And so on.
But what the RCA's paper does not deal with is the testimony of Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, who was the RCA's executive VP when the RCA's first position paper on organ transplantation that acepted brain stem death as death was issued.
RCA's own journal, Tradition, described Rabbi Walfish in glowing terms, and this was after the video posted below was made public, but before Herschal Schachter's hechmen decided to rewrite history:
A Tribute to Rabbi Binyamin Walfish
The Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Binyamin Walfish have been synonymous for fifteen years. During this time, Yummie, as he is affectionately called, was a household word among the RCA haverirn and the many organizations to which he was a delegate. He has demonstrated a zealous commitment for the wellbeing of the organization and the individual ray. He also represented the causes of the RCA and Torah yahadatin general with insight, vigor and pride. Upon entering his office, one could not help but be impressed by the sight of Yummie literally snowed under by his many involvements. While seated at his desk behind a pile of communications, newspapers and faxes and reading the day's mail, he would look up, always with a smile, and invite you to sit down for a "shmooz." Conversations, however, would be interrupted by the frequent ringing of his phone. These calls would come from different sections of the country and from other countries, especially Israel. Even while seated he was in a state of perpetual motion. And then, suddenly, he is on the go as he remembers that a committee is waiting for him in the conference room or that he must attend a community meeting. His life's concentration was the RCA in all its facets. He served as director, guide and advisor with indefatigability and intensity.
Yet when the RCA issued its new position paper on organ transplants and brain stem death Rabbi Walfish's testimony was negated in a bizarre way, and no one bothered to ask him anything about the issue:
Robby Berman, founder and director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society here, which encourages organ donations from Jews to the general public, said the committee’s report “clearly has an agenda.”
“It is not an objective review but rather transparently goes to great lengths to try to discredit any and all medical and halachic acceptance of brain death,” he said.
To counter the comments of more than a dozen renowned rabbis who accept brain death and support organ donations, Berman said the [RCA] committee “attempts to discredit their opinion in various ways,” such as saying they voiced a different opinion in private or later changed his mind or that his signed written opinion was forged.
Such was case with Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, former executive vice president of the RCA. The study said that in late 1983 or early 1984, Rabbi Walfish reported that he had met with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchek, whose work helped to shape Modern Orthodoxy in America, and that Rabbi Soloveitchik had accepted the “brain death” criteria.
“The Rav [Soloveitchik] was not actively involved in public affairs at that late date in his life,” the study said, but went on to note that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s brother, Ahron, as well as other close relatives, said Rabbi Soloveitchik never would have accepted the “brain death” criteria.
Asked about that, Rabbi Walfish, who was reached by phone in Jerusalem, insisted that he had in fact spoken with Rabbi Soloveitchik about the issue. He recalled that he had earlier spoken with Rabbi Tendler about a new test that could conclusively determine the brain stem had died.
“My words to him were that Rabbi Tendler says this test is foolproof,” Rabbi Walfish recalled. “He said that in these things Rabbi Tendler knows what he is talking about, and I approve it.”
Rabbi Walfish added that he had not read the study and did not know where the committee gathered the refuting statements.
“They didn’t ask me about it, so how can they refute what I said when they didn’t ask me what I said?” he said.
Here is Rabbi Walfish's video testimony issued years before the RCA decided to rewrite history:
This is Orthodox Judaism as we now know it. Rabbis who lie by omission. Rabbis who lie by commission. And common people who die as a result.
Here is the full 34 minute interview with Rabbi Walfish dealing entirely with organ donation and brain stem death, so you can hear the section on Rabbi JB Soloveitchik in context: