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!