Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Matters of Life and Death
The post yesterday on organ donation caused considerable consternation and led to a record-breaking seven votes of kefirah. I want to discuss it in more detail, but to break down the discussion into several topics and postings. In this post, I would like to address the charge that I was undermining the halachic process by making a decision on a life-and-death topic based on inadequate study and reasoning. The odd thing is that I specifically addressed this charge in the post, but people either ignored what I wrote or did not understand it.
Every single person makes a potentially life-and-death decision in this area. We have all either signed up to be an organ donor, or not. Either way, it has consequences that could mean the difference between life and death. Not signing up means that your organs will not be donated to a needy recipient, which could mean that a person who would otherwise have lived, will die.
So we have ALL effectively made potential life-and-death decisions in this area. The question is, what was the grounds for our decision? Shev v'al ta'aseh is sometimes a halachic verdict even in life-and-death situations - but where it is so, it is a halachic verdict of what to do (i.e. nothing) based upon an analysis.
Ideally, we would all be competent at making halachic decisions, and we would all have the time, knowledge and skills to be able to research this topic thoroughly from both a halachic and medical standpoint. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most of us - including me. So in the meanwhile, we make the decisions based on what we have. I made it clear that I was NOT issuing a formal conclusion based on my usual careful research, which I have not yet done and may never get around to doing, but rather I was explaining my reasoning for the way in which I reached my decision in the interim.
I would bet that most readers here have not signed up to be a donor, not because they have investigated the issue and concluded that it is halachically wrong based on sufficient investigation, but because they've never given it thought. I do not consider that to be adequate grounds for a potential life-and-death decision. And if those people then criticize me for reaching a decision based upon insufficient knowledge or research - well, the hypocrisy is appalling.
Now, some of us, instead of making our own evaluation of the halachic propriety of being an organ donor, follow a halachic authority. But this, too, is making a decision - the decision of which halachic authority to follow. There are halachic authorities who permit and encourage organ donation, and there are those that prohibit it. Even if a person has one halachic authority that he consistently follows (which is the ideal scenario), he is still making a decision as to which halachic authority to choose in the first place. And with a topic such as this, there is a broad correlation between the hashkafic orientation of the Posek and his decision in this area. For example, a Posek who is closed to the idea of Chazal/ Rishonim/ Acharonim being mistaken in science, will not say that these authorities based their decision on a mistaken understanding of the role of the heart. If you have reason to suspect that Chazal may have been mistaken in this area, and you follow the pesak of a Rav who is closed to this possibility, then you are effectively making a decision that you yourself have reason to suspect is incorrect.
Life is complicated. We have to make important decisions all the time, very often based on wholly inadequate information. This is one such case for me, and I am explaining the factors involved in my own choice (which I shall discuss in more detail in future posts; there were some unfortunate misunderstandings of these factors). But everyone is making a choice - and those who disagree with the way in which I make my decision, are welcome to explain and justify the grounds for their own decision. I suspect that many people would not be able to justify their decision - either way - against a sustained critique.
(On a different note - If anyone is traveling to Israel from the US and can bring something for me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
Posted by Natan Slifkin