Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is a Human?

There are some tremendously important statements by the Rishonim concerning the creation of man, which have ramifications both for reconciling evolution with Torah, and for the brain-death debate.

The fundamental question is: What is a human? This can be addressed with other questions: What differentiates a human from animals? At which point in the Torah's account of the creation of man does he become human? What is animal life, and what is human life?

The ramifications of this for reconciling evolution with Torah are obvious. But there are also ramifications for the brain-death debate. Dr. Noam Stadlan and others have made an excellent case for saying that a brain-dead person is not alive at all - not even to the extent that an animal is alive. But even if one considers that a brain-dead person is alive, is that which remains considered a human life? Can there be life in a human body, without it being considered human life?

This, to my mind, will get us to an authentic, tradition-based Jewish approach to brain-death, much more than making inferences from the Gemara about victims of collapsed buildings. Nishtaneh hateva - the difference between the medical possibilities - means that we cannot possibly deduce that when Chazal told us to check for breathing in a body, they meant to say that brain-death is not death. After all, given the medical possibilities available to Chazal, what else could they possibly have said?

To deduce the view of Chazal and the Rishonim regarding the modern reality of people that are brain-dead and yet with a beating heart and lungs, we should look instead at their views on what it means to have an animal life, and especially what it means to have human life. I have only started thinking about it from this angle, and I haven't yet reached any conclusions - but I can already see that the results of tackling it this way will be very interesting. To be continued next week!

29 comments:

  1. Rav Slifkin,

    I have a related question. One of your commentators "prooved" that the soul lies in the brain, by demonstrating that all parts of the body could in theory be removed and the person would continue to exist, except their brain. Far enough.

    But what of the reverse? Can a (theroretical)Golem be said to have a neshama? I am unfamiliar with the precise description of a Golem, but it seems to me to be some sort of automaton, with all the parts of a human body, but absent a "higher" brain.

    Yossi

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  2. The obvious answer is that human life is (halachically) defined by the presence of a neshama. The presence of the Neshama and the act of breathing are mutually dependent.

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  3. But what of the reverse? Can a (theroretical)Golem be said to have a neshama?

    I was also thinking that this might be a relevant line of inquiry. I have a sefer on tzaar baalei chayim which has a long section on halachos relating to Golems!

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  4. The presence of the Neshama and the act of breathing are mutually dependent.

    Not according to some Rishonim.

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  5. My intent is not to get drawn into a technical argument but to point out that, to my understanding, neither the act of breathing, heartbeat, nor brainwaves truly represent life; the halachic/'lomdish' definition of life is the honest to goodness presence of a neshama, a spiritual 'creature'. And so this may not be as scientific a question as it appears at first.

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  6. It may not be, or it may be. We'll take a look at the Rishonim to see.

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  7. Nishtaneh hateva - the difference between the medical possibilities - means that we cannot possibly deduce that when Chazal told us to check for breathing in a body, they meant to say that brain-death is not death
    =======================
    True-the counter for some would be -
    the difference between the medical possibilities - means that we cannot possibly deduce that when Chazal told us to check for breathing in a body, they meant to say that brain-death is death and since the stakes are so high better shev val taaseh.

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  8. Of course. They didn't mean anything other than that, in the ancient world, if a person isn't breathing, you can assume that he's dead. Hence, we have to look elsewhere to figure out what to do in the 21st century with someone who is brain-dead.

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  9. These are indeed core issues and sticky ones at that.

    In my comments to previous posts I have pointed in this direction. Before addressing some of these distinctions we must be aware of how emotionally volatile these questions are. It is repugnant to most people to think of a human body even with minimal ongoing metabolic function but without consciousness or even reparable cognition as being without human life. This is abundantly clear from previous discussions. Nevertheless, a rational approach must take a step back and carefully delineate these distinctions.

    As I mentioned in previous discussions, the question of a soul is a question of emuna, it is not for science. This is simply because it is non-physical and therefore can not be evaluated by any of the empirical approaches offered by science. However, keep in mind, the inability to prove the existence of a soul by science is far from a disproof of its existence.

    With this said, if the distinction between man and animals is based on a the presence of a human soul, and this is indicated to some degree by various verses and statements of Chazal, then the questions presented here are not entirely in the hands of science to answer.

    If however one wants to draw distinctions on the basis of cognitive proficiency such as language and abstract thinking (which one can also bring verses and Chazal in support of) then this is something that cognitive neuroscience is actively working on. The general consensus seems to be that there is no black and white distinction, there is a gradient scale of cognitive abilities with humans being more greatly endowed with some of the higher order abilities than animals seem to be. I say seem to be because this is still a topic of discussion.

    So, Rav Slifkin, which avenue are you suggesting we take to understand this?

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  10. Watch out for slippery slope! If higher brain function is the distiction between human and animal, what status does someone have whose cerebral function is damaged or destroyed but whose brainstem continues to function, I.E. one in a "persistant vegetative state". As far as I know, no one considers such an individual "dead", but, l'didan, is he a human or an animal?

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  11. The Kuzari's statement about tribal Africans would probably factor into this discussion in a meaningful way.

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  12. AIUI halacha as practiced doesn't follow R Yehudah ha-Levi's ideas about ethnicity. For example, halachos pertaining to gerim. I'm only superficially aware of this, though.

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  13. Rav Slifkin, when you write 'nishtana hateva' do you mean that the essence of nature has changed? or do you mean that our understanding of nature has changed? Or, since the bottom line is that we have disconnected our current understanding from a previous understanding, it doesn't matter?

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  14. In this particular context, I mean that medical technology has changed, and it is possible to keep the heart and lungs working when the person is brain-dead.

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  15. I'd be curious to know if there is anything learned out from the notion of the Shekhina leaving the Beis HaMiqdash, followed by the continuation of the Beis HaMiqdash until it is destroyed by people "under the auspices of God" [so to speak].

    This may be the metaphoric parallel between the neshama leaving the body. The body may continue on for a while.

    I wonder about this because we have all kinds of unusual halachos about mourning for the Beis HaMiqdash....including mini-fast days as the enemy passes milestones, the 3 weeks [fasting for an ill patient or sheloshim?], and a shiva, as it were, on the 9th of Av.

    Once Yechezkel knows that the Shekhina has left the Beis HaMiqdash, Yechezkel makes his lamenting prophecies.

    Just curious.
    Thanks.
    Gary Goldwater

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  16. According to this, is a person with a sever mental retardation human? Does he have a neshama?

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  17. RYBS already suggested this line of inquiry in respect to brain death, and stated that without a clear-cut proof from Chazal that a brain dead person was downgraded to an animal (which is possible), it isn't Halachically actionable.

    I would also reiterate that going down this path leads to ramifications for PVS patients, anencephalic babies, and Alzheimer's patients.

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  18. A human being is never downgraded to an animal. There are halachot with regards to respecting a dead human corpse. We are called upon to a respect a human life and the body that of that person. This is perhaps why it would never cross our minds to ask if person with advanced Alzheimer's is effectively dead as a person. Even though this person can no longer function, has no affective personality, no memory and is just a hollow shell. The same for extensive cortical brain damage.

    It would seem reasonable to define death as having two requirements; the cessation of self-sustaining life i.e. the ability of the autonomic nervous system to function through the brainstem along with the cessation of all cognitive function.

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  19. Thank you for the response. I think that most people don't realize that even those who want to define life and death by circulation face the same situation: why is a person who has lacked circulation for 20 or 30 minutes considered dead? During some complex surgeries, the heart is actually stopped on purpose and the has no circulation for more than 30 minutes. Is this person dead? When circulation is restarted is he alive? Why? How is this different? Please don't answer that circulation can be restartedin this circumstance, because as we have discussed previously, it can always be restarted with machines of chest compressions. So, since 20-30 minutes without circulation isn't a uniform criterion, it is necessary to think about the usual effects of 30 minutes without circulation, and why THAT finding implies death. You may wind up having to think along the lines that Rav Slifkin is going

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  20. I have a sefer on tzaar baalei chayim which has a long section on halachos relating to Golems!

    The name of this gem please.

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  21. There is an old commentary which says that the creation of Adam and his being kicked out of the garden, represents a spiritual act, whereby previous "humanoid" animals were suddenly given the "human spirit" and that this new human then conqured all the other humanoid animals (such as the giants and the nephalim mentioned later in the chumash) and thus we are all decendant from this one new "spiritualy" human, though he was no different physically at first from the others.

    This would imply that you can have a "human animal."

    However, to apply that to any living person today seems like a bad application of the theory. The reason being, that in the first case (Adam's time) the animals never had the human neshema to begin with, while in our case, they once had the neshema and only questionably don't now. But as we learn from hilchot Kodshin, once a vessel has the status of Kadosh, it can't lose that status without being completely destroyed.

    So even if you can argue that this once human is now an animal, the body would still retain a status of human kedusha.

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  22. I have a sefer on tzaar baalei chayim which has a long section on halachos relating to Golems!

    The name of this gem please.


    Tzaar Baalei Chaim.

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  23. But as we learn from hilchot Kodshin, once a vessel has the status of Kadosh, it can't lose that status without being completely destroyed.

    So even if you can argue that this once human is now an animal, the body would still retain a status of human kedusha.


    Are you trying to argue that we can't even take organs from someone who has had cardiac death?

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  24. "Are you trying to argue that we can't even take organs from someone who has had cardiac death?"

    Not at all!
    M'Kodesh L'Kodesh is fine.
    But perhaps i am arguing that you can't use organs from someone to say, save a dog's life.

    I'm just arguing that once a person has the status of a human, they can't lose that status and gain the status of an animal, no matter what the situation. (at least for Jews who have the status of Am Kodesh, I'm sure all humans have some level of kedusha, and hence Tumat Met, but I'm not sure the argument is as strong.)

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  25. R. Slifkin,

    Are you getting ready to argue that some people are not really considered human?

    And if so, are you getting ready to argue that halachos meant to protect human life do not apply to them?

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  26. This brings up a few things that have been sitting in the back of my head for awhile. There's a verse in braesheet which discusses Avraham "and the souls he made". I had understood that to refer to people who Avraham had converted to monotheism. Now Rambam states in MT that it is forbidden to save the life of an idolater or to give them any medical aid or heal them. That's something I've found disturbing and quite frankly difficult to understand as it doesn't seem in sync with the way Avraham behaved. But putting these two things together brings up the idea that maybe at one time it was considered that having a "soul" and being "human" are somehow related to being a monotheist? Where the other humanoid creatures living at the time of Adam human?

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  27. Amateur, do you have details on the commentary that you're referring to?

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  28. "Amateur, do you have details on the commentary that you're referring to?"

    Sorry, I don't. But if you like I can give over most of the dvar torah I heard regarding it, and how the text supports it.

    I don't remember which kabbalists was reported to be the source of the drash. I tried looking it up online, but google was flooded with irrelevant sites.

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