Scientific ignorance can be dangerous, especially when people with inadequate
knowledge are faced with and decide upon questions that demand
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.
Cohen’s widow: Organ donation my decision, not extremists'
Soccer legend Avi Cohen pronounced brain dead
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
“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,”
“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
“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
“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.”
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.