man gets his arm amputated and it is replaced by a prosthesis that
operates via brain signals. Can he use his artificial hand to type on
Shabbat? Do the neural messages being sent by his brain constitute a
physical act or are they just intangible thoughts?If I
just think about doing something, I have not upset my restful state.
But if those thoughts have tangible consequences, should they be
forbidden on Shabbat?
And if someone breaks that arm, is he liable for property damage or does it constitute personal injury?
if we can operate a car using the same brain signals, without having to
touch the gas pedal, turn the steering wheel or step on the brakes?
Could observant Jews start driving on Shabbat? Would we be responsible
for the damage caused if we had an accident?
a car or typing on a computer is prohibited on Shabbat. Mankind is
supposed to stop all creative acts on the day of the week that,
according to Jewish tradition, God "rested" after creating the world.
These were some of many questions raised
by a group of halachic scholars and scientists Wednesday at Bar-Ilan
University's Nitzotzot ["sparks"] lecture series, held at the Ludwig
and Erica Jesselson Institute of Advanced Jewish Studies Beit Midrash.
technological advances move ahead at a mind-boggling pace, ethicists as
well as halachic authorities have been confronted with a slew of new
moral and religious dilemmas that need to be addressed.
are developing artificial arms and legs that are controlled by neural
signals, not by muscles and tendons," said Rabbi Shabtai Rappoport,
head of the beit midrash. "These prostheses are able to duplicate many
of the functions of a human hand or leg, including many fine motor
skills. But they also raise new halachic questions."
technology is called Brain Computer Interface or BCI, which can be
either invasive - a brain chip is place inside the brain - or
semi-invasive - a chip located inside the skull but outside the brain's
Non-invasive BCIs have been less successful since
the skull dampens the signals, dispersing and blurring the
electromagnetic waves created by neurons.
When the subject thinks about moving his hand, he produces signals which succeed in moving a prosthesis.
But how does Halacha define such a limb? Are these gadgets kosher?
"The purpose of our meetings is to raise questions - not necessarily answer them," said Rappoport.
one of the factors that might determine whether using prostheses like
these for operating a car or writing on a computer screen on Shabbat is
social convention. If the use of this technology becomes an accepted
form of transportation or writing, it is more likely that we will
relate to it as a desecration of Shabbat."
Rappoport said that this was what has happened with Halacha's approach to writing on computers.
the first computers began to be marketed, many rabbis ruled that
writing on a screen was not considered to be an act prohibited by the
Torah," said Rappoport. "That's because it was considered a novel,
different way of storing information.
"But I believe today that
writing on a computer screen is probably the most common way of storing
information. So the approach should change."
Rappoport said that Halacha's perception of BCIs would probably run a similar path.
first, perhaps, we might tend to see this technology as an unusual way
of performing tasks. But as they become more mainstream, attitudes are
bound to change."
Rappoport used the example of the etrog (citron) to illustrate how social convention dictates halachic definitions.
Jews use the etrog in a religious ceremony during the Succot holiday.
However, since the fruit is delicate and cannot be used if it is
blemished, it is common for growers to graft a citron branch onto a
lemon tree to strengthen it.
According to Jewish law, a citron that grows in this way is disqualified for use in discharging one's religious obligation.
we look at this from a scientific point of view an etrog that grows in
such a fashion should be completely kosher," said Rappoport. "The fact
that the branch was grafted onto a lemon tree does not change the
fundamental composition of the etrogs that grow on the branch. It is
like planting the branch in soil.
"But since people look at the
tree as a lemon tree and see the citron branch as secondary to the
tree, the Halacha does also. The same would hold true for an artificial
arm or leg if it is perceived as an integral part of a person's body."
speakers included Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler from Bar-Ilan's School of
Engineering, who charted the technological developments from past to
present. According to Fixler, the serious challenge will present itself
when today's preliminary developments that enable thoughts to operate
computers become commercially available.
which are currently part of the world of computer games or restricted
to institutes of academic research, will pose a serious challenge to
halachic authorities as regards the boundaries of what is permitted and
forbidden on Shabbat," said Fixler.
He was followed by Israel
Belfer, a doctoral student who showed the increasing difficulties of
drawing the line between what is human and what is a machine.
moderator was Rabbi Dr. Tsuriel Rashi, head of the Communications
Department at Lifshitz College and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.
that were once considered crazy or science fiction are becoming
reality," said Rashi, "and Halacha is providing solutions to the moral
and ethical questions raised by this new reality."