Thursday, January 27, 2011

Brain Death and Arguments at Cross Purposes

Reading the extensive debates on the brain death vs. heart death issue, I begin to discern positions, and understand to some extent where various parties are coming from. And I am coming to the conclusion that the one who best pursues Emes in this case is R' Slifkin (RNS), while other parties seem to sometimes argue disingenuously.

R' Moshe Feinstein, and yblcht"a R' Moshe Tendler, agree on brain-death as equalling death, based on close readings of a mishna in Ohalot, a Rashi in B. Yoma 86a, and other sources. Never mind that those who support heart-death read the same things another way. R' Tendler doesn't approach the scientific basis of Chazal and the Rishonim in understanding this, he seems to treat the whole thing as an empirical exercise. His primary motivation seems to be to allow heart, lung and liver transplants, which cannot take place from a donor whose heartbeat has stopped. Therefore, read the halacha, take what you can, and who cares what the science was underlying their opinions?

R' Slifkin, taking off from there, looks at what Chazal thought about science, based on an aggadita in B. Ber. 61a. Seeing that it doesn't agree with modern science, but does agree with Aristotelian ideas about the functions of the various organs, he says that "Chazal were mistaken in this regard", and then goes on to say that the modern understanding of brain-death vs. cerebral death vs. heart death is based on that flawed understanding of science. Now that we know the true function of most organs, we can follow those who say brain death is death.

R' YGB (Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer), in a fit of political pique, finds a 19th-century source (R Kamelhar is a good writer, I have his capsule biographies of 18th and 19th century rabbis "Dor Deah", but do people really take him more seriously outside his field than, say, the Torah Temimah?) that understands R' Slifkin's aggadita metaphorically, and uses that to say R' Slifkin was wrong, and further heretical to believe that Chazal were wrong. RYGB's post and comments seem based on a desire to disassociate himself from RNS, whom he had supported in the earlier banning of R' Slifkin's books.

Note that R' Slifkin is not disagreeing with Chazal, he's not saying they're wrong in any metaphysical sense, just that they had outdated science, and ruled in accordance with that.

Note further that RYGB also says that contemporary poskim should rule in accord with modern science, in some cases. Where to draw the line? Apparently, where it crosses a line. What line? The line drawn in the sand by loud "gedolim" and their handlers. (in quotes because one never knows what's really from a godol and what from the handler - e.g. the RYSE-Crocs controversy).

RYGB paints himself into a contradictory position: poskim can/should depend on science/secular knowledge, AND poskim who rely on science/secular knowledge where that knowledge is true yet different from that of Chazal, are heretics.

RYGB tries to portay his position as one of respect for Gedolim, using the story of his smicha farher, but even that fails, in that he embraces positions of ziluzul chachomim, like that of RASolo who would have put R' Yitzchak Lampronti into cherem.

RNS demonstrates clearly that the Acharonim had no problem embracing science and its changes since the days of Chazal, or even in their own times, e.g. R' Yonasan Eibeschutz ruling in accord with post-Harvey understandings of the heart and circulation as against the Chacham Tzvi who extensively supported Chazal's understandings of organ function as literally true. He doesn't even seem to have a problem himself with using modern understandings of biology to change psak (not just explain changes in psak, but actually change it).

I think RYGB really gives away the game in comments such as "[the Chasam Sofer used Conservative reasoning in ruling that karpas is celery based on Arabic language] Certainly not! He was using secular wisdom to understand chazal, not to override them," and "[if you have no proper fear of Chazal] you have no business in the world of psak." Either RYGB is completely misreading RNS intentionally, and thus fighting tooth and nail against a strawman for political purposes, or he is truly misunderstanding RNS beyond his evidently superficial reading, which seems unlikely.

RNS' whole purpose appears to be understanding Chazal, rather than overriding them. Others have already long since overridden Chazal on matters dependent on changing understandings of science - R Tendler, the Chasam Sofer, etc. They just don't make it explicit that they're disagreeing with the science of Chazal. They just ignore the history of science, and run roughshod over precedent. That seems to be the position of R' Tendler and, by extension, his late father-in-law. As is psak. RNS is not paskening, he's using evidence of change in our Rabbis' understandings of science, based on the changes in the ongoing history of science, to understand the shifts in their thinking and psak. So RYGB's arguments are not really aimed at RNS, but at a strawman. I don't think RYGB would actually disagree with RNS if he were to take the time to understand him.

Really, most people don't think all that much about history of science. Good history of science writing is often based on the idea of "we would know what they thought when they did it." (Richard Hamming, 1980) The discipline of the history of science has long been developed by amateurs. E.g. Galileo studies, my late aunt's field, was largely developed by Stillman Drake, who started out with several decades as a financial consultant, teaching himself about Galileo. He never took a PhD. Her advisor, a prominent figure in the history of mathematics, did her PhD is in math, albeit a historical survey of modern abstract algebra. (Full disclosure, I minored in Science in Human Affairs, and wrote my bachelor's thesis on "The IBM 650, A Computer in Context", advised by the late Prof. Michael S. Mahoney).

This may be a problem for RNS in being accepted by those who want to be seen supporting Yeshivish positions. He is engaging in intellectual history, and the history of Halakhah is often seen as a Maskilic undertaking (about it, not it.) But who better to write history of halachah than one who has spent his life within its daled amos, and who has been forced by circumstances to take the long view in understanding intellectual shifts?

By raising the issue of "they could say this but we cannot", his banners created a consciousness of shifts in intellectual trends within the Torah world over the millenia of its development. I get the feeling RNS started out writing his animal books in the spirit of "ignore what they used to think, here's a way to think about them for kiruv," much as R' Tendler's approach to brain-death ignores history in accommodating contemporary needs. But in the course of the dispute, he seems to have gained a sense of history. Is it any wonder that he now applies that sense to other disputes in contemporary Orthodoxy? It was not he who started the brain-death dispute, it was an RCA committee report.

To sum up then, from what I can see, R' Tendler (and the other poskim who rule for brain-death rather than heart death) ignore Chazal's history of science, and simply rule in accordance with changes in science and technology, motivated by the need for organ transplantation and Jews not being portrayed as takers but not givers. RYGB pretends that there is no history of science, and that RNS is being disrespectful of his betters by saying they were wrong and paskening against them. On that basis, he disassociates himself from an effigy of RNS. And RNS honestly undertakes an investigation of the history of rabbinic science, explaining the shift in psak, not paskening for anyone.


micha said...

The problem is exactly that RNS is seeking truth, in particular a scientific truth -- then uses this quest to reach halachic conclusions.

It's not an issue of his being "disrespectful of his betters". It's ignoring the entire notion of halakhah, legislation, and legal authority.

We've gotten to a point where daas Torah created a counter-reaction. So, one side ascribes authority to rabbis that historically was never justified. The other side denies them the authority that they do have. Resisting overdone versions of daas Torah doesn't mean abandoning emunas chakhamim altogether.

R' Binyamin Hecht noted something when L'Affaire Slifkin was in its heyday. Dialog is impossible because one side is discussing rationality and understanding, the other side is reinforcing authority. They were simply not discussing the same subject.

I think the same thing is happening here, but since here we're talking about what should the halakhah be, the meaning and role of authority is different.

הגיין said...

Thanks for the post.

It seems to me that in seeking אמת [*], especially in life-and-death matters, we need studies like this one, but clarifying correlates of the terms 'נשמה', 'נפש', 'חיים', etc.
Antoine Lutz, et. al.: Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. PNAS November 16, 2004 vol. 101 no. 46 16369-16373.

--Don Qijote

[*] Re. Rabbi Berger's comment, אמונת חכמים may demand this, too.

micha said...

I'm not sure whether the neshamah even has a physical correlate. (Sort of by definition, I would think it doesn't.)

The question of what is the physical correlate of consciousness is only part of finding a measurable definition of ruach. Since we have failed at the former, we're bound to fail at the latter as well.

IOW, much of being human as Chazal saw it may not involve anything empirical altogether.

thanbo said...

Sorry, Micha, you're making RYGB's strawman mistake as well. RNS isn't using his understanding of history to pasken, which would be a Conservative methodology indeed, but he's using history to support those who DO pasken, like RMT, who, in their process of psak, ignore the history of science.

He's doing exactly what RYGB claims to want him to do - using history to understand (shifts in) psak, not paskening based on a positivist reading of history.

And then RYGB turns around and repudiates him. Which is intellectually dishonest.

This is not the first time, as you well know, that I've disagreed with RYGB. You keep excusing him on the grounds of "this is how a godol speaks, and he wants to be thought of as a godol", but somehow, I just don't buy it. This kind of unthinking dismissiveness is the same as he exhibited when denouncing an imagined "fault-finding school" of biblical interpretation.

micha said...

Actually, I didn't touch RYGB's comments at all. You're projecting what you expect me to say onto my words. Kindly re-read what I wrote with a clean slate. (Actually, I was trying to say RYGB was overcompensating and therefore erring in the reverse direction.)

Your comments about C are more on target. Slifkin is imposing his own views on what RMF wrote and said to RMT, making their idea fit a history that they don't claim it does. I can't picture RMF being happy with the notion that Chazal's pesaq is fpr a metzi'us that never existed (ie a misunderstanding of what actually occurs). Ever learn Derash Moshe? RMF tended to attribute far more knowledge to Chazal than that.

S. said...

I still can't wrap my head around being told that it is wholly my prerogative to choose to understand Chazal through Feliks's research, or Elman's, in practice.

thanbo said...


There's the hypocrisy in a nutshell. If it's your prerogative to understand Chazal through Feliks or Elman, i.e. through the lens of modern science qua secular knowledge, why is it not similarly OK to understand Chazal vs modern psak through the lens of history of science? It's not saying Chazal were wrong objectively, it's not saying their psak was wrong objectively, it completely saves the phenomena. Chazal were right for their time, and the implied process of interpreting Torah through the lens of then-current medical science and technique points us towards how we can understand contemporary psak in a less self-serving mode than "RMT/RMF wanted to maximize pikuach nefesh and reduce the potential for adverse views of Jews".

They weren't objectively wrong, we just pasken differently now, in accord with the SAME principles under which they worked.

Micha, you complain "You're projecting what you expect me to say onto my words."

You wrote above, "then uses this quest to reach halachic conclusions." That is what I mean about your reflecting RYGB's strawman argument. Whether you intended to address RYGB's position or not, you apparently are taking it, and using it to complain about RNS.

If you read RNS, he's not "reaching halachic conclusions", i.e. paskening. He sees the new consensus, that both RCA and Agudah held by for the past 20 years, and taking a historical view allows him to incorporate BOTH the pre-bypass-machine situation and the post-bypass-machine situation, and observe that the psak was correct for both. What's wrong is to use the pre-bypass-machine psak as the CURRENT psak, which is what has RMT so up in arms.

thanbo said...

And maybe I'm being Conservative for trying to find a way for the Torah to not only fit contemporary views of science, but fit with views of science as paradigms have changed throughout history. So be it.

Can I have cheese sandwiches from Pret A Manger now? Or, can I use hot water to wash the dishes on Shabbos from my own hot water heater (rather than an apartment building's)? Oh, right, R' Adler in T-nek, following RYBS and Reb Chaim, says you can, so even that's still within the MO spectrum (barely).

micha said...

What "new consensus"? The RCA is avoiding a statement (although we know where the posqim they turn to if they wanted to set policy stand), the Agudah stands by heart death. RMF's exact position is only known via RMT, who bemechilas kevod Toraso was all over the map as to what his father-in-law's sevara was. In the recordings on the site, he contradicts himself (to the best of my ear). I trust his eidus, but RMT argued this point so many times and so heatedly, memory slippage is only to be expected.

So, who is this new consensus? The Chief Rabbanite and a few other rabbanim. When it comes to pesaq, I don't think we have anyone more skiled than Rav Ovadia. But that's not enough to consider something a new consensus.

I was saying that RNS is trying to promote a minority viewpoint on the grounds of historical theory. Let me take that back, if I may. I think his followers, those that confuse martyrdom for skill, are turning a guy's theoretical exploration into C-like legal thinking.

thanbo said...

Did you read RMT's article from 1990? "All over the map" sounds very different from what he says himself: RMF was for heart death until his last teshuvah on the subject, in which he switched to brain death, davka BECAUSE technology had changed, and one could now sustain life without a beating heart, as in bypass operations, after the 1970s.

Apparently I was confused - I thought Agudah held by brain death as well in recent years.

Natan Slifkin said...

I want to make a clarification: Chazal's rulings about what to do when finding a body were not wrong at all. If I was living 1500 years ago, I would also say check for breathing! What else is there to check for, in the absence of modern technology? There's nothing problematic about Chazal's rulings. The only problem is when people extrapolate from them to entirely different situations.

Natan Slifkin said...

I can't picture RMF being happy with the notion that Chazal's pesaq is for a metzi'us that never existed

I'm not happy with people who distort my views. Chazal's pesak was correct, for a metzius that most certainly existed.

micha said...

Ah, so you're saying that Chazal's pesaq is correct even though it's for a metzi'us in which hearts and kidneys play a part in consciousness, a metzi'us you're saying does or did exist?

You do ascribe to Chazal a basis in their describing a reality that doesn't (and indeed never did) exist, and saying that's grounds for our ruling differently.

(In contrast to, for example, that our greater ability to measure these things obligates relying on that different standard.)

micha said...


To be more explicit, you write in this comment chain, " Chazal's rulings about what to do when finding a body were not wrong at all. If I was living 1500 years ago, I would also say check for breathing! What else is there to check for, in the absence of modern technology?"

That is a totally different position than what you write in your paper. If you're claiming that's what you said, it's you who are distorting what you wrote. The paper was about Aristo's concepts of which organs process thought, and thus about wrong science. Or, as I put it, valid halachic thought on a metzi'us that doesn't occur.

You're now advocating something different, to which I would not -- and didn't -- object.

Natan Slifkin said...

They certainly had the wrong idea about the relative role of the heart and brain. But it's not relevant to the halachos that they paskened on this. The halachos that they paskened were fine. It's only drawing inferences to modern, different situations which is problematic.

micha said...

Sorry, that is still not what you originally said: The overall point of this discussion is to show that Chazal's views and rulings on life and death were fundamentally related both to the mistaken beliefs of the era about physiology as well as the limited medical possibilities. Thus, any halachic analysis of this topic must take this into account in order to be valid.

Now that I objected to the thesis you summarize one half of your introductory sentence, you're only speaking to the other half.

YGB said...

Numerous distortions of my positions here! In no particular order:

1. I never advocated on behalf of "Gedolim." Clearly posters are erroneously conflating respect for the Shach (17th cent.) with respect for Rav Shach (20th cent.)!

2. I never supported RNS's position in earlier issues. I did express solidarity and empathy for him personally, and continue to attempt to engage in debate in the most courteous manner possible.

3. I was not aware that I am supporting "Yeshivish" positions. Are all poskim "yeshivish?"

4. I am fascinated that posters can discern from a comment in which I cite something told to me by RAS that I "embrace" that perspective. Not true. One cannot relate anecdotes without being seen as "embracing" them?

5. In a similar vein, I quoted Rabbi Kamelhar as a historical tidbit that served at the same time as an example of but one of many ways of demonstrating RNS's approach to be a subject of dispute. But, in any event, to dismiss him on the basis of his obscurity is to engage in the same behavior posters have erroneously attributed to me.

This is not an exhaustive list.

This is the nature of the Internet, and of Media in general. You attempt to put people in pre-conceived boxes such as "yeshivish" or "respect for Gedolim" - even wheh they are completely irrelevant.

thanbo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thanbo said...

The comment was too long to fit in this 4K block, so I made it into the next post.

Natan Slifkin said...

Sorry, that is still not what you originally said: "The overall point of this discussion is to show that Chazal's views and rulings on life and death were fundamentally related both to the mistaken beliefs of the era about physiology as well as the limited medical possibilities. Thus, any halachic analysis of this topic must take this into account in order to be valid."

Now that I objected to the thesis you summarize one half of your introductory sentence, you're only speaking to the other half.

What happened was that I realized that it wasn't relevant. Even if they would have had correct beliefs about the brain vis-a-vis the heart, the ruling would still have been the same, as far as I can tell.

thanbo said...

RNS: IOW, it wasn't a change in science, it was a change in technology.

Still, to say Chazal were "mistaken" seems unnecessarily harsh, and off-putting to the Chazal-as-malachim crowd.

micha said...

RNS: What happened was that I realized that it wasn't relevant. Even if they would have had correct beliefs about the brain vis-a-vis the heart, the ruling would still have been the same, as far as I can tell.

If I thought about it more, I might agree that the changes in what we can measure would be sufficient to justify this kind of change, not that my opinion matters.

My objection was to the procedural issue that you seem to think it is proper halachic analysis to propose a subtext RMF never mentions that ties changes in halakhah to changes in zeitgeist.

thanbo said...

The subtext could just be subconscious. E.g. not counting certain things as mitzvot because they're assumptions that underlie the whole enterprise of Torah/mitzvos.

Like I'm drawing a subtext under RNS' ideas, one that he probably didn't think about consciously either.

Mike S. said...

I apologize for leaving my comment on the subsequent thread rather than here. But I think you are misunderstanding R. Tendler's opinion. His opinion is that the standard of death used by Chazal and used in practice for centuries was based on respiration, and that, translated into modern medical terminology, it corresponds to brain-stem death. He doesn't address the history of science because the understanding of the functions of various organs does not enter in to the definition he is describing to Chazal. For that reason, I don't see the relevance of R. Slifkin's arguments to the issue. Even is one grants that Chazal made statements or rulings based on Galen's understanding or physiology or the humor theory or what have you, it doesn't seem to affect the argument here. And although other's disagree with Rav Tendler's reading of the passage in Ohelot, his reading seems entirely cogent and indeed, far less strained than that of his opponents.

If you want examples where history of science might be more important, you can look at mixing fish and meat, or of invertabrate parasites of fish (i.e worms), or various rulings in kashrut that seem to be based on science but are not in accord with modern understanding of food science--(for example, "kbol'o kach polto" or the correspondence between an ingredient being taste-able by an expert chef and comprising at least 1/61 of the mixture.)

micha said...

I agree with Mike S, unsurprisingly. He is making the same point I did about differentiating between changes in tech and thus what we are capable of doing, and changes in science. I would just add that historically, there were trends in how to handle changes in science.

The Gra and R' Kook would only use the new science lechumerah. The idea being that for every ruling there may well be undocumented reasons in addition to the documented ones. Thus, eliminating one reason to be lenient is sufficient to argue for stringency. But, eliminating one reason to be stringent does not rule out the possibility of undocumented reasons for stringency that still stand.

Others take a case-wise approach, somehow finding a reason for each ruling that stands with the new science.

R' Gil Student wrote on this way back (before Hirhurim) givine a broader survey. See here.

The 8th month fetus is an exception to the rule, because risk to life outranks halakahah. Here things are messier, because even in the case of a potential organ donor, the whole ruling is itself about risk to life.

The setting of the definition of the end of Shabbos, I should point out, is also not quite the same case, since there there was no precedent. There was no consensus about how to apply the norms we were following in the middle east to points further from the equator. So, it was more a matter of defining law than overturning precedent.