Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Rational Soul

Over the last few days, we have been exploring Ramban's view that a person's nefesh hamaskeles - rational soul - is distinct from his nefesh habehemah - animate soul. Ramban is of the view that a man who lacks a nefesh hamaskeles (such as Adam before he was given a rational soul, and a golem) is no different from an animal, and may be killed just like an animal.

Would Ramban consider a brain-dead person - someone who lacks even the brain activity necessary to regulate breathing, let alone any more complicated mental activity - to lack a nefesh hamaskeles? I think that he may well even consider such a person to lack a nefesh habehemah. But let's discuss the evidence that Ramban would consider this person to lack a nefesh hamaskeles:

- Nefesh hamaskeles
means rational soul. Someone who is brain-dead has zero capacity for any form of rational mental activity. (I am well aware that later authorities ascribed all kinds of kabbalistic/mystical aspects to the soul. But Ramban only makes mention of it serving to distinguish man from animals in terms of the mental superiority that it grants.)

- Based on his argument from the golem, it seems that Ramban considers that one can assess whether someone has a nefesh hamaskeles via observing if they have the capacity for communication/ intelligence.

- All bodily functions - sufficient to produce a man who can function to the same degree as an animal - are controlled by the nefesh habehemah. There is no function in the body, in terms of breathing, eating, moving, etc., for which the nefesh hamaskeles is required. So the fact that a brain-dead person is breathing and has blood flowing through his veins is no indication whatsoever that a rational soul is present.

Some people are wondering why I am discussing the obsolete medieval views on various aspects of life/soul. First of all, this is for those who are not satisfied by standard rational arguments for brain-death, and want to see it rooted in traditional sources. Second of all, it is not so relevant that Plato and Aristotle are obsolete; the point is that Ramban accepted that a human body which is breathing, eating, etc., may not be rated as possessing the life of a human being. This is a value judgment, not a scientific judgment, and it is one which is very relevant to brain-death.

In summary, then, I think that it is clear that Ramban would maintain that a brain-dead person is considered to have already died as a human, and remains alive only as an animal (if even that), like a golem and like Adam before he received his rational soul. As such, according to Ramban, it would not only be permissible, but even mandatory, to take organs from such a man in order to save the lives of human beings.

27 comments:

  1. This line of thinking could be applied to a comatose (non-brain dead) patient in the hospital. This type of patient is much more common than those meeting the criteria for "brain death."

    It can perhaps be applied to profoundly mentally retarded patients.

    It's an interesting academic discussion, but can lead to some ethically disturbing conclusions.

    I'm not sure whether your punch line is to ultimately advocate behavior in this world, or is this a purely theoretical.

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  2. What about family rights to the body?

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  3. I think one of the problems with this argument (especially if it's "for those who are not satisfied by standard rational arguments for brain-death") is that people have trouble accepting brain death as actually permanent and irreversible. Too many believe that, so long as the body is alive (no matter how) there is a chance (however small) of recovery. If that were true, you wouldn't really be able to say that the nefesh hamaskeles is gone (any more than it is from someone who is "just" comatose) and your argument falls apart.

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  4. Charyeh, you're right. I find that many people don't really know what brain-death is, and they think that there are Reader's Digest style stories about people coming back from it.

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  5. Okay, time to jump the gun: people with severe disorders of nervous system (congenital, irreversible) have just an animal soul? Can/must we harvest their organs?

    Also, a brain-death animal is still fully alive, right?

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  6. I don't know enough about different human conditions to say what Ramban would say about them.

    A brain-dead animal would be the same as a brain-dead person. By the way, do you realize that brain-dead people cannot breath except via an artificial respirator, because they lack even the basic brain activity necessary to control the heart and lungs?

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  7. All bodily functions - sufficient to produce a man who can function to the same degree as an animal - are controlled by the nefesh habehemah. There is no function in the body, in terms of breathing, eating, moving, etc., for which the nefesh hamaskeles is required.

    Yes, but this is irrelevant, because the Ramban ends:

    או שיאמר שחזר כלו נפש חיה, ונהפך לאיש אחר, כי כל יצירותיו היו עתה לנפש הזאת

    The layers of the various parts of the soul does not necessarily mean he is a vegetable+animal+human, and that they can be subsequently peeled apart and retain their initial definition. All the sections have been elevated as belonging to a human.

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  8. RNS "By the way, do you realize that brain-dead people cannot breath except via an artificial respirator, because they lack even the basic brain activity necessary to control the heart and lungs?"

    I do, but I'm not sure you had it in mind when you claimed that a brain-dead person can he dead as human but alive as animal. Is there anyone who claims that such an animal is not a neveila?

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  9. Truthfully, I'm still having difficulty understanding how a person born of a human father and mother is not considered human, with most of the rights thereof, regardless of what happens to them after birth.

    It seems to me that halachah would recognize this fact as well, as we are able to make distinctions between categories of human beings (Cohen, Levi, Yisrael, Gentile, etc.) based on parentage alone, without resorting to giving thought to the state of cognition of the individual.

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  10. I was reading the revised edition of Rabbi Lamm's "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning" the other day, and he asserts a difference between "brain death" and "brain-stem death". I believe he said that while many poskim now accept "brain stem death" as halachic death, no one has accepted "brain death" when the medulla is still functioning.

    I haven't looked further into what he wrote, but I *think* that what you're here labeling "brain death" is what R' Lamm calls "brain-stem death". Could you please clarify?

    Thanks.

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  11. I'm not sure you had it in mind when you claimed that a brain-dead person can he dead as human but alive as animal. Is there anyone who claims that such an animal is not a neveila?

    I didn't say or mean that he is just as alive as an animal. I meant that he is definitely no more alive than an animal. But I think he is much less alive than an animal!

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  12. There are people who come back from vegetative states. In fact that is a long article in this month's Discover magazine all about how people in vegetative states are in better shape now than in the past because of advances in science. However, a vegetative state is EXTREMELY different from brain stem death. In a vegetative state the brain stem is still working and the heart and lungs still work autonomously. People have gotten better from some vegetative states. NO ONE HAS EVER COME BACK FROM BRAIN STEM DEATH. A neurologist in my Shul has assured me of this and pointed me to several articles on this matter. That is why brain stem death is the criteria for taking organs.

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  13. "...because they lack even the basic brain activity necessary to control the heart and lungs?"

    Actually, the brain controls breathing while it only influences the heart. The heart does not use nervous stimulus to beat. In fact, the sole direct neurological control serves only to slow down the heart.
    A heart will continue to beat without any direct neurological control--that's why we can transplant a heart. In fact, in the proper nutrient medium a heart will beat outside of the body.

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  14. RS, I understand your point but cannot accept it. And here is why. If Ramban believed that seir la'azazzel was sacrificed to the sotan on Yom Kippur and he took the golem story literally he is not an authority on the matters of spirituality to me. I am not part to a religion that believes in sacrifices to the sotan.
    This really got pretty crazy. Someone posted that they had asked a shaila about eating a golem and were told it's not so poshut. What's next? Marrying one to solve the schidduch crisis?

    If you think to gain traction with 'mystics' it will never happen. They intuitively oppose normal human behavior. Being a donor is being normal, modern and human. I don't know any 'mystics' that fit the bill.

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  15. Charyeh, you're right. I find that many people don't really know what brain-death is, and they think that there are Reader's Digest style stories about people coming back from it

    True. Until mechapeset pointed it out, I'd thought that once you are on a respirator you are brain dead and sholom al Yisroel. But from this blog I found out that no dice! Donor cards notwithstanding they can keep you breathing and torture you for decades. Not me friends, I am leaving clear and specific instructions to pull that plug. My life, my choice, my business.

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  16. Truthfully, I'm still having difficulty understanding how a person born of a human father and mother is not considered human, with most of the rights thereof, regardless of what happens to them after birth.

    Excellent point! This is why you are the one to make the decision by signing the donor card. The emphasis on lomdus and halacha is misplaced. This is primarily a values issue. Olam golem. We should educate people to be loving, carrying, kind and to reject superstition. Such people will want to be donors and the problem will take care of itself. The rabbis had already taken care of the halacha. As I had already stated my daas balaboste nobody REALLY knows what is soul, or life, or death, or love. We are operating within the realm of OUR knowledge.

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  17. . If Ramban believed that seir la'azazzel was sacrificed to the sotan on Yom Kippur and he took the golem story literally he is not an authority on the matters of spirituality to me. I am not part to a religion that believes in sacrifices to the sotan.

    Carol, if people who take positions that you consider irrational are no longer authorities for you, then you might as well give up on Judaism. Chazal had plenty of such beliefs.

    Alternately, you could accept that even if people have various beliefs that are very different from yours, it does not mean that they are not very wise people from whom you can learn much, and whose community it is valuable to be a part of.

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  18. Sholom said...
    Truthfully, I'm still having difficulty understanding how a person born of a human father and mother is not considered human, with most of the rights thereof, regardless of what happens to them after birth.


    What about after a fatal heart attack? Then they're considered dead! A brain-dead person is also considered dead - it's just that his body hasn't caught up yet (f you believe that the body even still has a nefesh habehemah).

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  19. It is very dangerous (or incorrect) to learn halacha from hashkafa. Ramban knew this. In his commentary on the Gemara (Nida 64a) he writes that veset hachodesh makes no sense, because how can a woman's cycle be connected to Beis Din declaring a new month. However in his Hilchos Nida (Chapter 6:20) he brings veset hachodesh as halacha.
    Also, from his vikuach he makes the distinction between hashkafa and halacha.
    It is a mistake to try to pasken any halacha from hashkafic statements (though they are occasionally brought in teshuvos to add 'weight' to an argument. But never to 'prove' a point).

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  20. First of all, Yaavetz and others do learn halachos of golems from concepts of nefesh behemah etc.

    Second, with the topic of halachic determination of death, poskim do learn halachah from hashkafah - e.g. with aggadic statements about the heart. Examples of this are legion.

    Finally, if you deny the possibility of learning halachah from hashkafah, then you are denying the possibility of formulating a coherent halachic position regarding brain death - since there are no traditional halachic sources which discuss it.

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  21. "But I think he is much less alive than an animal!"

    That's my point. You have no reason to believe that Ramban would consider him to "...remain alive only as an animal"

    Would he really be an animal, he would be a dead animal, ergo never reached the moment of downgrading from human to animal in the first place.

    On the other hand, using your logic on other cases of absence of "rational soul"... Ya know...

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  22. Would he really be an animal, he would be a dead animal, ergo never reached the moment of downgrading from human to animal in the first place.

    And what difference would that make?

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  23. Carol, if people who take positions that you consider irrational are no longer authorities for you, then you might as well give up on Judaism. Chazal had plenty of such beliefs.

    I don't have this problem with Chazal because I am able to rationalize or contextualized their beliefs. If that fails, and it generally doesn't, I fall back on simple faith that their words have meaning that I cannot uncover at this point in my life. I am not aware of Chazal believing that satanic worship is part of Yom Kippur sacrificial service. In fact, it's idol worship as stated in Tosefta Chulin 2:18. R. Sheilat explains it very well in his biur on Rambam in maseces Avodah Zorah 1:3. Where am I wrong here?

    Ramban's commentary has academic, cultural and historical value and is part of our heritage. I am not suggesting to ignore it completely. However when it comes to trying to ascertain metaphysical truths, he disqualified himself by virtue of his satanic beliefs. A satanist cannot possibly know the true nature of the soul. Where am I wrong here?

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  24. Second, with the topic of halachic determination of death, poskim do learn halachah from hashkafah.

    Correct, many do. This doesn't make it legitimate from the rationalist perspective. Why are we going there at all? Would you be mefalpel with Vayoel Moshe about the gimel shvouos or dismiss his whole premise of learning halocha from agadda as wrong? I think a rationalist can accept this approach as true.

    I don't understand all these tortured attempts to read brain death into ancient texts. People based their Halachik decisions on the their scientific knowledge. That was their approach and we should simply follow it. Did they claim to be privy to a gilui Eliahu or malach hamaves or prophecy when ruling on these matters? Not to my knowledge. So why should anyone think otherwise? This is halocha velo bashamaim he!

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  25. But perhaps once a being has become a nefesh hamaskelet, it is forbidden to kill that being even if it now only has a nefesh haBehema? A golem or Adam before getting his neshama never were (yet) a nefesh hamaskelet.

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  26. "What about after a fatal heart attack? Then they're considered dead! A brain-dead person is also considered dead - it's just that his body hasn't caught up yet (f you believe that the body even still has a nefesh habehemah)."

    You're point is about the nefesh hamaskeles, the absence of which does not at all correlate with a diagnosis of "brain death," according to standard criteria. Clinically speaking there is a huge difference between a person who has been declared brain dead and someone who lacks a nefesh hamaskeles.

    The latter criteria would include (at the very least) most comatose individuals, as well as those in a persistent vegetative state who do not at all fit clinical criteria for brain death.

    The nefesh hamaskeles argument, apart from circumventing the typical halachic arguments for brain death, is whoefully imprecise for such determinations.

    What level of IQ must a person have to officially lack a nefesh hamaskeles? Does the presence or absence of brainstem reflexes matter, according to you? What about stroke patients, suffering from a severe aphasia, who are incapable of understanding spoken language, or formulate intelligible speech, but are otherwise able to accept feeding, and nutrition, even by mouth?

    Are Tay Sachs babies, born of human beings, not considered human, according to you? Is a Tay Sachs baby born of a Jewish couple not considered Jewish, then?

    What about children who are born cognitively normal, but experience regression into severe mental retardation, as occurs with some autistic children. At what point do they lose their humanity?

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  27. It's not "according to me." It's according to Ramban. I personally have a different approach. As to what Ramban would say about these cases - I suspect that in some of them they have enough intelligence to be deemed possessing a nefesh hamaskeles, and in others he would say that they don't.

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