Can Jewish law keep up?

Thought-controlled gadgets pose new Halacha challenges.

Aman gets his arm amputated and it is replaced by a prosthesis thatoperates via brain signals. Can he use his artificial hand to type onShabbat? Do the neural messages being sent by his brain constitute aphysical act or are they just intangible thoughts?
And if someone breaks that arm, is he liable for property damage or does it constitute personal injury?
Whatif we can operate a car using the same brain signals, without having totouch the gas pedal, turn the steering wheel or step on the brakes?Could observant Jews start driving on Shabbat? Would we be responsiblefor the damage caused if we had an accident?
Normally, operatinga car or typing on a computer is prohibited on Shabbat. Mankind issupposed to stop all creative acts on the day of the week that,according to Jewish tradition, God "rested" after creating the world.
If Ijust think about doing something, I have not upset my restful state.But if those thoughts have tangible consequences, should they beforbidden on Shabbat?
These were some of many questions raisedby a group of halachic scholars and scientists Wednesday at Bar-IlanUniversity's Nitzotzot ["sparks"] lecture series, held at the Ludwigand Erica Jesselson Institute of Advanced Jewish Studies Beit Midrash.
Astechnological advances move ahead at a mind-boggling pace, ethicists aswell as halachic authorities have been confronted with a slew of newmoral and religious dilemmas that need to be addressed.
"Scientistsare developing artificial arms and legs that are controlled by neuralsignals, not by muscles and tendons," said Rabbi Shabtai Rappoport,head of the beit midrash. "These prostheses are able to duplicate manyof the functions of a human hand or leg, including many fine motorskills. But they also raise new halachic questions."
Thetechnology is called Brain Computer Interface or BCI, which can beeither invasive - a brain chip is place inside the brain - orsemi-invasive - a chip located inside the skull but outside the brain'sgray matter.
Non-invasive BCIs have been less successful sincethe skull dampens the signals, dispersing and blurring theelectromagnetic 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.
"However,one of the factors that might determine whether using prostheses likethese for operating a car or writing on a computer screen on Shabbat issocial convention. If the use of this technology becomes an acceptedform of transportation or writing, it is more likely that we willrelate to it as a desecration of Shabbat."
Rappoport said that this was what has happened with Halacha's approach to writing on computers.
"Whenthe first computers began to be marketed, many rabbis ruled thatwriting on a screen was not considered to be an act prohibited by theTorah," said Rappoport. "That's because it was considered a novel,different way of storing information.
"But I believe today thatwriting on a computer screen is probably the most common way of storinginformation. So the approach should change."
Rappoport said that Halacha's perception of BCIs would probably run a similar path.
"Atfirst, perhaps, we might tend to see this technology as an unusual wayof performing tasks. But as they become more mainstream, attitudes arebound to change."
Rappoport used the example of the etrog (citron) to illustrate how social convention dictates halachic definitions.
ObservantJews use the etrog in a religious ceremony during the Succot holiday.However, since the fruit is delicate and cannot be used if it isblemished, it is common for growers to graft a citron branch onto alemon 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.
"Ifwe look at this from a scientific point of view an etrog that grows insuch a fashion should be completely kosher," said Rappoport. "The factthat the branch was grafted onto a lemon tree does not change thefundamental composition of the etrogs that grow on the branch. It islike planting the branch in soil.
"But since people look at thetree as a lemon tree and see the citron branch as secondary to thetree, the Halacha does also. The same would hold true for an artificialarm or leg if it is perceived as an integral part of a person's body."
Otherspeakers included Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler from Bar-Ilan's School ofEngineering, who charted the technological developments from past topresent. According to Fixler, the serious challenge will present itselfwhen today's preliminary developments that enable thoughts to operatecomputers become commercially available.
"These developments,which are currently part of the world of computer games or restrictedto institutes of academic research, will pose a serious challenge tohalachic authorities as regards the boundaries of what is permitted andforbidden on Shabbat," said Fixler.
He was followed by IsraelBelfer, a doctoral student who showed the increasing difficulties ofdrawing the line between what is human and what is a machine.
Themoderator was Rabbi Dr. Tsuriel Rashi, head of the CommunicationsDepartment at Lifshitz College and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.
"Ideasthat were once considered crazy or science fiction are becomingreality," said Rashi, "and Halacha is providing solutions to the moraland ethical questions raised by this new reality."