Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dismissing Rashi, Undermining the Chasam Sofer

The poskim who discuss brain death analyze such sources as Rashi's commentary to the Gemara in order to reach their conclusions.

I'm not going to bother discussing Rashi's view, because he wasn't aware of the correct scientific reality as discovered by modern science.

Now, many people reading that last sentence will see it as further evidence of my unacceptable approach. How could I have the audacity to dismiss Rashi? Rashi was written with ruach hakodesh!

But that sentence in bold is not mine. It was the statement of no less an authority than the Chasam Sofer, discussing Rashi's commentary on a different matter relating to physiology:

"What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosfos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin. We have only what the Rambam wrote in the Mishna Torah and his Commentary to the Mishna - even though the latter has statements which are unclear. However, you will find correct drawings in the book Maaseh Tuviah and Shevili Emuna…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this." (Chasam Sofer to Nidah 18a)


If Chasam Sofer recognized that we can't use Rashi's explanations if they are affected by his lack of medical knowledge, why can't Poskim today?

Even more ironic is that the Poskim also analyze the Chasam Sofer's statements about death in order to reach their conclusion. But Chasam Sofer also did not have the modern understanding of physiology, nor the modern possibilities for maintaining organs and physiological systems.

Now, some will immediately point to the statement of Chasam Sofer rejecting any alternative to the Gemara's rule of declaring death based upon the absence of respiration. He claims that this must have been based on the superior scientific knowledge of the ancients and/or on Scripture. As Chasam Sofer famously stated:

"All the winds of the world will not move us from the standards established by our Torah." (Teshuvos Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 338)


Yet the fact is that nobody follows the Gemara's rule in this regard. According to the Gemara, if the person is not breathing, he is considered dead. That was a reasonable position for Chazal to take. But nowadays, we would do CPR! Some people attempt to argue that the Gemara is talking about someone who has irreversibly stopped breathing. But this is sticking a contemporary position into the Gemara - it's not what Chazal said or meant. Yes, if Chazal would have known about CPR, they would have formulated their ruling differently. But by the same token, if they would have known that the heart is nothing more than a blood-pumping organ, and that all cognitive action takes place in the brain, and that a brain-dead person can have his organs used to save others, they would have said many things differently.

Dismissing Rashi due to his lack of knowledge of anatomy? Chasam Sofer already did it. Undermining the Chasam Sofer's principle? Every posek has already done it. So why when it comes to brain death, all the Poskim - on both sides - are reaching their conclusions by analyzing the positions of Chazal, the Rishonim and Acharonim? Especially since when it comes to kidney donation, most Poskim freely ignore Chazal, where Chazal likewise based themselves on Scripture.

34 comments:

  1. >If Chasam Sofer recognized that we can't use Rashi's explanations if they are affected by his lack of medical knowledge, why can't Poskim today?

    Because the Chasam Sofer still thought you could rely on Maaseh Tuvia. Let's say he wrote the words you cited in 1815. Maaseh Tovia was written in 1708. Not only that, the gap in scientific knowledge between 1708 and 1815 was much narrower than it is between 2011 and 1904. Not only that, Maaseh Tuvia doesn't really reflect the lastest scientific knowledge of 1707. It was one of those quaint mixtures of medieval and modern (really early modern) science, kind of like what a science book by Rabbi Shlomo Miller would probably look like.

    What happened was the gap between science and Torah, between the secular and Torah widened greatly. I find this situation often. One of my favorite examples is how the Chasam Sofer chose to use celery for karpas because "karpas" is celery in Arabic. If that need clarification, it is to say that he based his seder night minhag on comparative Semitic linguistics. Of course comparative Semitic linguistics has a long vintage in our tradition (although I don't know if it does for practice). Every time Rashi cites Onkelos that's what is happening. But isn't it true than in 2011 comparative Semitic linguistics turns out to be more threatening to our tradition than it seemed in 1815 once we realize that, say, Tehillim are a lot like Ugaritic poetry? Etc. A forward-thinking rabbi like Rabbi S.R. Hirsch realized this, and that's why he turned his back on the philology of Dunash, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, etc.

    Perhaps this is why posekim today shrink back from something that the Chasam Sofer didn't, or more accurately, they learned to shrink back from predecessor posekim who began to realize the gap was larger than the Chasam Sofer realized. CS himself allegedly said that medical data derived from experimentation on gentiles shouldn't apply to Jews. Real scientific, huh?

    That said, such sources as you cite should be produced and people challenged by it. Let someone acknowledge what I said, or find some other distinction - or let them agree with you rather than simply ignoring the issue altogether.

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  2. You make so many good points, raise many good questions, but then make statements that you must know are incorrect.
    1. Posekim don't reject Chazal when it comes to kidneys. They feel Pikuach Nefesh overrides any other considerations.
    2.Chasam Sofer is a proof directly against you. He is willing to reject Rishonim when he feels based on faulty science, but yet in this case he is confidently saying Chazal are correct because it is based on Scripture or superior science. Now you yourself would (seem to agree) that if the definition of death was based on scripture we couldn't disagree. In any case, the Chasam Sofer says that it is. That is a Torah, not scientific, statement. Who are you to disagree?
    3. You must know that your comment that Posekim reject the Chasam Sofer based on CPR is silly. The CS says lack of breathing is the Torah (not scientific) basis for death. Posekim have a right to understand his Torah position as meaning non-reversable lack of breathing. In know way is that rejecting the CS - it is trying to understand the application of his principle.

    In any case, the CS in Niddah just makes your position IN THIS CASE weaker. It does however, serve your position well in many other contexts.

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  3. We aren't concerned with when Chazal determined someone to be dead. We are concerned with what Chazal determined to be death of the organism, and that Chazal thought that happens sooner than we know it to, does not change the Halachic definition of death.

    If Chazal define death as cessation of respiration, so can we.

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  4. 1. Posekim don't reject Chazal when it comes to kidneys. They feel Pikuach Nefesh overrides any other considerations.

    Not true. They simply aren't mityaches to it at all. They could insist, say, that people only receive the right kidney, not the left (which advises evil). In fact very often a donor left kidney is used to replace a right kidney.

    He is willing to reject Rishonim when he feels based on faulty science, but yet in this case he is confidently saying Chazal are correct because it is based on Scripture or superior science. Now you yourself would (seem to agree) that if the definition of death was based on scripture we couldn't disagree.

    Of course we could. It's Scripture which says that the kidneys provide counsel. But we don't follow that with kidney transplants.

    By the way, my point was not that Chasam Sofer would agree with me. It's that nobody agrees with Chasam Sofer. Because the Gemara says no respiration means death - and yet we do CPR.

    Posekim have a right to understand his Torah position as meaning non-reversable lack of breathing.

    What do you mean, "a right"? That's just not what Chazal (or Chassam Sofer) said or meant. They didn't say "if he has irreversably stopped breathing, he's dead." They said "if he is not breathing, he is dead." Sure, if they would have known about CPR, they would have said it differently. But that's my point.

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  5. We are concerned with what Chazal determined to be death of the organism

    Which, as explained at length in previous posts, was based on (a) a misunderstanding of the role of different parts of the body and (b) a lack of ability to maintain/ restore bodily systems.

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  6. BTW, it is precisely on this point that RHS disagrees with the Poskim who define death as cessation of resporation rather than circulation (which is Rav Schachter's opinion). He claims (based on the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, and the Maharatz Chajes, and this is how Rav Schachter understands the CS) that Chazal merely considered breath a reliable gauge for the organism being dead, but that is not Chazal's definition of death.

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  7. Was the chatham sofers 2nd comment taken out of context? Or more specifically- what was the context when he mentioned winds of the world swaying us etc? Given his methodology vis a vis rashi in the 1st quotation, it must be that the medical doctors and scholarly papers cannot be dismissed as winds of the world or other such frivolities. So I don't see the relevance of the 2nd quotation about swaying from torah position.

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  8. Which, as explained at length in previous posts, was based on (a) a misunderstanding of the role of different parts of the body and (b) a lack of ability to maintain/ restore bodily systems.

    Neither of which have been proven to be the basis of Chazal's position on death, and assertion (a) has not been adequately proven at all vis-a-vis the brain, as I have pointed to a number of sources to the contrary.

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  9. Student V - Chasam Sofer felt that Chazal were much more authoritative than Rashi.

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  10. Neither of which have been proven to be the basis of Chazal's position on death

    It's incredibly overwhelmingly likely that they relate to it, and it's the most obvious reason why a heartbeat or respiration should be deemed significant.

    I don't what sources you are talking about re the brain. You mean the statement about someone not having a brain in his head? It doesn't negate the Gemara about the role of the heart and kidneys. Either it was a differing view, or it meant that his air-conditioner wasn't working, or even if it meant that the brain has a certain capacity for rational thought, it doesn't negate the heart as choosing between good and evil and thus housing the more fundamental aspect of a person's soul.

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  11. It's incredibly overwhelmingly likely that they relate to it, and it's the most obvious reason why a heartbeat or respiration should be deemed significant.

    This is a purely subjective opinion. (And according to the Chazon Ish, it doesn't matter).

    Besides, let me ask you the what I asked Dr. Stadlan - would you support harvesting the organs of an anencephalic baby with the brainstem supporting nothing but spontaneous breathing (and/or reflexes), which no Posek in the world allows?

    I don't what sources you are talking about re the brain. You mean the statement about someone not having a brain in his head?

    That, and the Yalkut chalking it up as a debate between R' Eliezer and R' Yehoshua.

    It doesn't negate the Gemara about the role of the heart and kidneys. Either it was a differing view, or it meant that his air-conditioner wasn't working,

    All unproven hypotheses.

    or even if it meant that the brain has a certain capacity for rational thought, it doesn't negate the heart as choosing between good and evil and thus housing the more fundamental aspect of a person's soul

    Also conjecture.
    So would you harvest the organs of one who has lost the ability to choose between good and evil? Why not?

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  12. Well that was why I asked for context because 'standards est. By our Torah' makes no specific delineation of terms. Since I am ignorant of the relevant sources I won't doubt your assessment that he took chazal as much more authoritative than rashi, but this made no mention of chazal.

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  13. >Posekim have a right to understand his Torah position as meaning non-reversable lack of breathing.

    That's just wrong. If this were what he meant, he could not have insisted on early burial. The whole point was the only delayed burial would ensure that an apparent cessation of breathing was in fact "non-reversable."

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  14. It's incredibly overwhelmingly likely that they relate to it, and it's the most obvious reason why a heartbeat or respiration should be deemed significant.

    This is a purely subjective opinion. (And according to the Chazon Ish, it doesn't matter).


    I have not seen a single reasonable argument against it. And not many people follow the Chazon Ish.

    and the Yalkut chalking it up as a debate between R' Eliezer and R' Yehoshua.

    First of all, that's a late source. Second, since even this source acknowledges that one view was that the heart houses the mind, that proves my point!

    >or even if it meant that the brain has a certain capacity for rational thought, it doesn't negate the heart as choosing between good and evil and thus housing the more fundamental aspect of a person's soul

    Also conjecture.


    What on earth does that even mean? What do YOU say about the Gemara defining the function of all the different organs, and assigning the kidneys and heart to counsel and understanding?

    So would you harvest the organs of one who has lost the ability to choose between good and evil? Why not?

    I don't understand the question. I don't agree that the heart performs this role!

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  15. Akiva, I'm simply at a total loss to understand what your position is. Can you explain what you think the view(s) of Chazal are, and the reality of the functions of the body?

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  16. Let's start from the end. Since you link the heart's function of choosing good and evil to the soul (YOU say this), why would you not say that one who has lost his ability to choose between good and evil has lost his soul?

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  17. I said that this is, at the very least, the role that Chazal attributed to the heart.

    I am talking about the baseline for death - no brain function. What about someone who only has x% of his brain? I don't know, and we don't need to decide that right now.

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  18. But that's not all you say! You say that this is the link to the soul and that is what informed their position on death. You are making an assumption that ability to choose between good and evil = the soul! So leshitashca - why not harvest organs of one who has lost this ability = his soul?

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  19. Because I don't think that that is necessarily ALL there is to the soul. And, as I said, it's hard to draw the line on how much brain damage counts. But the very least we can say is that complete brain damage means that none of the functions formerly thought to reside in the heart, are longer extant.

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  20. Because I don't think that that is necessarily ALL there is to the soul.

    So what makes you think Chazal did?

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  21. Chazal (according to Chasam Sofer) define death as lack of breathing.

    It is therefore either inherent in
    their words, or by no means a reach to say based on their words, that as long as the person can recover the ability to breath he is still alive. This is true even though Chazal and the CS had no clue about CPR (think using nisabra bi'ambatia as a source for artificial insemination discussions).

    This does NOT at all carry over to mean that new science would make them change their definition of death. The two have nothing to do with each other. That would be rejecting Chazal, as opposed to basing on Chazal. Your comparison makes no sense. The Posekim therefore do not reject CS.

    They ignore (not mityaches) kidneys because the comments about kidneys are aggadic in nature. Again, this has nothing to do with them being able to ignore what Chazal believed was the Halachic definition of death.

    These chilukim are so obvious I cannot understand why you don't see them.

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  22. So iow how did u determine the context as relating to chazal?

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  23. R' Natan,

    I believe we are missing here some definitions. Can you please explain what do you mean when you say:

    1.Soul
    2.Life

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  24. Yitzi said...

    Chazal (according to Chasam Sofer) define death as lack of breathing. It is therefore either inherent in their words, or by no means a reach to say based on their words, that as long as the person can recover the ability to breath he is still alive. This is true even though Chazal and the CS had no clue about CPR


    I take it you haven't studied the Chasam Sofer. The entire case was one where the non-Jews were saying that even if a person has stopped breathing, it is possible for him start breathing again. And Chasam Sofer rejected this, because Chazal say simply that the lack of breathing conclusively proves death.


    They ignore (not mityaches) kidneys because the comments about kidneys are aggadic in nature.


    It's an (allegedly) factual account of the kidneys' function. This is clear from the context of the Gemara. And all the Rishonim and Acharonim understood the Gemara that way.

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  25. Rabbi Slifkin,

    The problem with your take on brain death is that you have assumed the Rabbis base their halachik decisions solely on scientific grounds. Halacha is complex and both moral and ethical issues as well as educational and psychological considerations make up the decision process. In the case of removing organs, halacha considers the donor, but also the one performing the operation and the recipient. If the perception is for example that one is removing an organ from a living entity, notwithstanding that medically the donor is dead, the person performing the operation has crossed a barrier which is the top of a slippery slope and who knows where it will end. Will the consideration of saving a normal life at some point supersede the taking of a problematic life?

    Other such considerations come into play and the scientific understanding of time of death is therefore not the only consideration. Yes, the discussion will include the scientific but that is not all. Anyone that seriously learns halacha in depth comes to that realization and that is why the dialogue between a halachik expert and those who have not yet entered the world of Iyun is so fraught with misunderstanding. I believe my comment is the underlying sensed frustration of the commenters above as well as your frustration with them. Your contribution in understanding where current technology differs from those of earlier times is valuable but arriving at halachik conclusions solely on medical and scientific grounds without ethical, moral, educational and psychological considerations and implying Rashi et al did so too, is wrong.

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  26. The problem with your take on brain death is that you have assumed the Rabbis base their halachik decisions solely on scientific grounds.

    You're making the same misunderstanding as many others. I'm open to someone demonstrating that Chazal ALSO based it on other grounds. But it has to be acknowledged that the scientific component is overwhelmingly likely to have fundamentally affected their views.

    The problem with everyone else's take on brain death is that they have assumed the Rabbis did not at all base their halachik decisions on scientific grounds.

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  27. >I'm open to someone demonstrating that Chazal ALSO based it on other grounds. But it has to be acknowledged that the scientific component is overwhelmingly likely to have fundamentally affected their views.

    The question is how much weight the scientific consideration has in the overall halachik decsision. You assume that it is "overwhelming" and I believe that the perception which is the basis for the other considerations is the most important.

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  28. Yes, I think it's overwhelming. But at the very least, it has to be taken into account. The poskim who discuss brain death, either pro or con, don't take it into account at all.

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  29. S. said...

    It was one of those quaint mixtures of medieval and modern (really early modern) science, kind of like what a science book by Rabbi Shlomo Miller would probably look like.

    I would not cast aspersion on Rav Millers medical knowledge. I have had to ask him several medical shailot and I have found him fully conversant with medical terminology as well as anatomy down to details such as industrial standards on various machines and their paraphernalia.

    I also know at least one doctor that he does to in order to consult on medical issues and no, he is not a frum Jew. I also know with whom he consults with on pharmaceutical issues. He is not someone who needs someone to translate or give remedial explanations of what is being told to him and he does not trip or even speak in Yinglish.

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  30. All right, here's the discussion closer:

    Quoth (suppposedly) Rav Eliashiv: They (in this case the Chasam Sofer) could say it, we (in this case you) can't.

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  31. I don't know, I don't see the CS the way Rabbi Slifkin does. I don't see anything there that wouldn't allow for the possibility of immediate CPR. He is talking that breathing can't re-start on its own hours or days later.

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  32. He is talking that breathing can't re-start on its own hours or days later.

    And why not? Because the Gemara speaks about the person "not breathing" - it doesn't say anything about "not irreversibly breathing." Hence, acc. to Chasam Sofer, the Gemara is telling us that a person who is not breathing will not breathe again - either naturally or via artificial means.

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  33. Quoth (suppposedly) Rav Eliashiv: They (in this case the Chasam Sofer) could say it, we (in this case you) can't.

    But in this case Rav Elyashiv and others DO overrule Chazal - on kidneys, and on CPR.

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  34. S.'s opening comment is frighteningly accurate.

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