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Brain Death: A Reply by Rabbi J. David Bleich
Brain Death: A Reply by Rabbi J. David Bleich

Volume 3 , Issue 5

It has always been my policy to eschew any form of personal controversy. It has also been my practice to respond to sincere quests for information or guidance as candidly and forthrightly as possible. I agreed to be interviewed by The Jewish Review with regard to a matter of topical halakhic concern; I also agreed to author a response in order to correct erroneous statements in an article expressing an opposing view. All of that was within the legitimate parameters of an effort to teach and clarify matters of Torah. Unfortunately, The Jewish Review has seen fit to continue an exchange that has now gone far beyond the bounds of propriety. I am sorely tempted to rebut Rabbi Tendler's three points thirty times over, but will overcome that temptation in refusing to rise to the bait and be drawn into an ad hominem exchange.

My position with regard to the halakhic issue in question is quite clear. It has been spelled out in great detail in numerous academic publications, both in Hebrew and English, in the course of which I believe that I have clarified, to the best of my ability, each and every salient issue. Other than the obligation incumbent upon every Jew to understand and teach Torah, I have no personal interest in the matter and certainly harbor no personal ill‑will against those who may sincerely espouse a contrary view.

For the record, the only letter of Rabbi David Feinstein to which I was privy while preparing my contribution to The Jewish Review (which was submitted for publication well before the San Francisco conference) was that cited in Ha‑Pardes, Tishrei 5748. That letter is accurately quoted in my article. Whether or not there is any discrepancy between that letter and the one adduced by Rabbi Tendler, I leave to the determination of the reader and Rabbi David Feinstein himself. Posthumous "clarifications" of an announced halakhic ruling, such as have been advanced by Rabbi Tendler and his own son‑in‑law, Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, cannot be introduced into the process of halakhic decision‑making regardless of how reliable the source may be. A discussion of that principle and the authority upon which it is based are presented in my article in Or Ha‑Mizrach, Tishrei 5748.

There is one further substantive point, totally unrelated to Rabbi Tendler's response, that requires clarification. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik has drawn my attention to the fact that a reader of my article in the last issue of The Jewish Review might be left with the impression that I accept the view that total liquefaction of the brain is recognized by Halakha as an indication of death. That is not my view. I have stated repeatedly (and most recently in Tradition, Spring 1989) that, in my opinion, even total liquefaction of the brain is not synonymous with death and have presented the considerations upon which that position is based. I did not stress that point in my contribution to The Jewish Review because, as stated in my introductory paragraph, I was responding solely for the purpose of rebutting clearly erroneous statements and also because the point is entirely theoretical since, in the real world, the heart stops beating long before total lysis of the brain occurs. Even if that were not the case, I doubt that a halakhically acceptable diagnosis of total lysis could be obtained short of surgical penetration of the skull.

In the past, for reasons of intellectual integrity, I have been careful to write that this reflects my own thesis regarding the criteria of death recorded by the Sages, although I know of no recognized rabbinic authority who disputes that view. I was unaware of any whom explicitly espoused the view. I am now able to report that this is the position of Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik. In support of his position Rabbi Soloveitchik cites Rambam, Hilkhot Shechetah 6:4. Rambam declares, "The brain...if it spills as water...(the animal is a) tereifeh." Since, by definition, a tereifeh is alive, reasons Rabbi Soloveitchik, it follows that an animal or human being is regarded as yet alive even though the brain has liquified. Assuredly, there is more to be said both with regard to the underlying thesis and with regard to the evidence adduced in its support. However, that discussion is best left for a more appropriate forum.

Rabbi J. David Bleich



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