Monday, February 28, 2011

Disputes Vs. Deference

When the first ban against my books was issued, by Rav Shiner, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Lefkowitz and Rav Weintraub, I didn't think for a moment that I would have to obey it, especially since I had never actually heard of any of these people. But I was concerned that Rav Elyashiv would end up banning my books. If he were to do that, would I have to obey him?

In the ensuing months, I explored the topic of rabbinic authority in detail. I discovered that I was not the only one who was confused and misinformed about it! And so I posted a page on my website explaining why I was not obligated to follow the directive of Rav Elyashiv or any of the other charedi Gedolim. It began with the more obvious reasons - that these Gedolim are simply not knowledgeable about the scientific issues, the positions of the Rishonim, the books or the audience - but the final reason, which was a later addition, was really the most crucial point: that these Gedolim follow an entirely different school of thought within Judaism.

Yet even that was short of the mark. It presumed and implied that when everyone is working within the same school of thought, one should indeed defer to the judgment of those who are more learned. This is indeed the argument made in the latest post at the outstanding Hirhurim blog. Yet, while anyone is free to defer to whoever they want, is there really a reason to do so?

I have an essay, due to be published soon in a memorial volume, on the topic of students disputing teachers - a case where the relationship between the two would surely demand maximal deference. And the Gemara says that "Anyone who disputes his teacher, is as one who disputes the Divine Presence." Yet the Rishonim and Acharonim considered it inconceivable to interpret this maximally; after all, the Gemara is replete with examples of students disputing their teachers. They therefore explained it to refer to things such as the student acting disrespectfully to his teacher, undermining his teacher's authority by publicly overturning his rulings, etc. But for him to disagree with his teacher's rulings - and even to say so publicly - was not only permitted, but actually mandated, according to several authorities, in cases where he genuinely feels his teacher to be mistaken.

And this is in the case of a student-teacher relationship! Clearly there would be even less reason for deference in other cases. Rav Moshe Feinstein has two important responsa on the topic of disputes vs. deference. One is regarding the propriety of a rabbi in Bnei Brak disputing the Chazon Ish (see translation here), where Rav Moshe says that it is inconceivable that there would be any reason why he would have to defer to the Chazon Ish. He says that even a student may not rule in accordance with his teacher if he disagrees with him - all the more so with someone who is not his teacher. And in another responsum (translated here), he explains why he sometimes disputes Acharonim and even Rishonim. His reason is that everyone has the responsibility to form opinions based on what makes sense to them.

But how can one have the audacity to dispute those who are vastly greater in scholarship and wisdom? Isn't it absurd to think that one's view has any credibility?

Not at all. This is not like a first-year college student disputing Einstein. It's more like an average person having different political views than a professor of political studies. In Torah, interpretation is not solely based upon stored facts. Rather, there is an enormous amount of sevara - subjective reasoning and personal judgment. These can be improved with more study and experience, but there will inevitably always be differences between different people. It's not just between different schools of thought, such as with rationalism versus mysticism, that differences come to the fore. Every person is different - as Chazal say, "Just as their faces are different, so too are their thoughts different." Assuming that someone possesses basic competence in Torah, and is not missing any relevant facts or sources, there is no a priori reason why his analysis of a topic should not be superior to that of someone else who is more learned. (Though there may be cases, such as in issuing public rulings, where experience with dealing with communal issues itself is a factor in arriving at the appropriate ruling.) The credibility of his conclusions in the eyes of the general public, and the extent to which it will be accepted, will inevitably be based on the general stature of that person. But everything ought to be judged on its own merits, and there is no reason why, barring a case where one lacks information, someone should a priori assume that his analysis of a topic is necessarily worthless vis-a-vis that of a more knowledgeable or brilliant scholar.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Analogy Vs. Inference

Yesterday, we noted that the Gemara does not directly determine the halachah regarding activating electrical circuits on Shabbos. But that does not mean that the Gemara is irrelevant. Rather, a posek decides whether electricity is sufficiently analogous to categories that the Gemara does discuss. Because there can be no exact analogy, this means that ultimately it is a matter of the personal judgment of the posek, which is why there are disputes on the matter. In other words, the halachah cannot be directly or conclusively inferred from the Gemara; but a Posek can exercise his judgment that it is sufficiently - albeit not exactly - analogous to something in the Gemara. As a rough analogy rather than a precise inference (I am not yet sure whether the stress should be on the adjective or the noun - input would be welcomed!), the halachah is ultimately based much more on non-Talmudic considerations rather than on the Gemara itself, even though it may be ultimately rated as falling under a Talmudic category. The recognition of that allows for more incorporation of non-Talmudic-halachic reasoning. For example, one could say that because electricity is not in the Gemara, therefore it is permitted; or, one could say (or subconsciously feel) that because activating electrical circuits destroy the spirit of Shabbos, therefore we will consider it analogous to one of the forbidden melachos.

Now, back to brain death!

In an earlier post, I noted how Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach admitted that he was mistaken in attempting to determine the halachah of brain death based on the Gemara regarding the impossibility of delivering a live baby from a woman who dies. What happened here is that Rav Auerbach realized the impossibility of inferring the halachah from the Gemara. One cannot infer that since a brain-dead woman can deliver a healthy child, then brain death is not death - for when the Gemara says that a dead woman cannot deliver a live baby, this was merely describing the reality of 1500 years ago, and it has no bearing whatsoever on the modern question of brain death.

By the same token, one cannot draw inferences from the Gemara in Yoma regarding a person found under a collapsed building, where respiration is ruled to determine whether he is alive. This only tells you (and correctly so) whether with a person found under a collapsed building 1500 years ago, respiration determined whether he was alive; it does not tell you what the ruling is regarding someone brain dead and breathing via a respirator.

What about the Mishnah regarding a decapitated animal being considered dead even if the limbs twitch? Again, one cannot draw any direct inferences to brain death, which is not exactly the same. One can judge that it is sufficiently analogous, but because this is a personal judgment regarding sufficient analogy, there can be - and are - those who disagree.

The Gemara really does not address the situation of brain death at all. How could it? In order to do so, the Gemara would have to differentiate between the functioning of different organs and systems. It would have to reflect an awareness of the differentiate between respiration, circulation and neural activity - and the correct identification of which organs are responsible for each. But 1500 years ago, there was no concept of the difference in these functions, or in keeping part of the body alive while another part has died, let alone correctly identifying the function of each part of the body. Thus, no clear inferences about brain death - either way - could possibly be drawn from anything that the Gemara could conceivably say.

But what we can do is to decide that brain death is analogous to something in the Gemara - either to a case in which someone is considered alive, or to a case in which someone is considered dead. So, we will subsume it under a category in the Gemara. But to determine which, we will have to make a judgment call based on ideas, facts and values. How to do this is a thorny problem, which we have touched upon in the past and to which we may return on a future occasion.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is Electricity in the Gemara?

In the comments to an earlier post, some discussion developed regarding whether the halachos of electricity are in the Gemara. Does the Gemara answer the modern question as to whether it is permitted to activate electrical items on Shabbos (I am not talking about electric lights, which is more problematic, but rather other electrical items)?

Various authorities have argued that activating an electrical circuit on Shabbos falls under the Talmudic prohibition of molid (creating something new), boneh (building) makeh bepatish (completing a construction), causing sparks, burning (the fuel), or cooking (the wires). Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, on the other hand, argued that electricity is not comparable to any of these things, and is thus only prohibited due to custom and due to the risk that it may lead someone to switch on an electric light.

Now, I am certainly not going to argue that Rav Shlomo Zalman is definitively correct; I do not even know how one could do so. However, the very fact of the existence of his view sheds light on the situation. Nowhere does the Gemara discuss electricity, because it hadn't been invented yet. Is electricity analogous to other activities described in the Gemara? In some ways, yes, and in other ways, no. So is it sufficiently analogous to the Gemara's activities to be prohibited? That is a matter of dispute between Poskim - i.e., it is a matter of personal judgment. The Gemara itself does not say whether electricity is analogous to these things!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When God Reveals His Secret Knowledge

Many times the Sages describe natural phenomena with which they could not possibly have had a personal acquaintance. The Talmud explains their amazing knowledge with this verse, ‘The secret of Hashem is for [i.e. revealed to] those who fear Him.’ (R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer, Tehillim (ArtScroll/Mesorah 1977) vol. I p. 313)

In my various writings, I have extensively explored the view that the Sages's knowledge of the natural world was based simply on common beliefs rather than supernatural sources. But what about the concept of Sod Hashem Liyreyav, which is used by the Gemara to mean that the Sages possessed supernatural knowledge of the natural world?

I am pleased to announce the publication of a new monograph which analyzes the usage of this principle in the Talmud, and its subsequent interpretation and employment by the Rishonim, Acharonim, and contemporary Orthodox figures. The results are extremely illuminating for anyone interested in the decline of rationalism, and especially for anyone seeking to understand the stance of the Charedi Gedolim regarding Chazal's knowledge of science.

You can download the monograph by making a Paypal donation here (after making a donation, it will take you to a download page). As always, feedback is appreciated.

WikiLeaks and Rambam

WikiLeaks and Rambam? Yes, there is a connection!

WikiLeaks' stated goal "is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations." That sounds reasonable, but one does receive the impression that the fundamental value guiding WikiLeaks, and certainly many of its supporters, is that all information should be available to everybody - in particular, sensitive information about national politics and security.

But many people - and I mean fine, democratic people - consider this to be a harmful enterprise. It is understood that even governmental bodies who have the best interests of the people in mind will sometimes have to conceal certain information. Sometimes this is for the sake of national security, sometimes for diplomatic objectives, and sometimes for the peace of mind and well-being of the citizens. Of course there are countless benefits of an open society with free speech, but, like everything else, you can have too much of a good thing. Not every truth is beneficial for everybody, and caution must always be exercised.

This is a fundamental dynamic of Rambam's thought. Rambam broadly divides everybody into two classes: the elite and the masses. There are certain philosophical truths which are important and beneficial for the sophisticated elite to know, but which would be harmful to the unsophisticated masses and which should therefore be concealed. This attitude often provokes a visceral reaction, and there is certainly legitimate concern about who is entitled to make such judgments for others. However, the underlying idea - that not all true information is beneficial to all people - is surely correct.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Are You Sick of Brain Death?

Are you sick of the brain death controversy? You're not alone. For a variety of reasons, many people just don't want to hear any more about it. Many of the leading poskim and medical experts already spent a lot of time on this issue many years ago and they are burned out from it. Other people are at the opposite end of the spectrum - they've never gotten into the topic, believe it to be too late to become knowledgeable about it, and are just waiting for it to blow over.

I only have a few posts left on this topic, but they are important. Aside from the fact that this is very much a matter of life and death, I have come to realize that it is a pivotal topic for rationalist Judaism. So, interspersed with other topics that I will be writing about, there will be some very important posts about the relationship between the topic of brain death and other aspects of Jewish thought.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dove of War

Over at VosIzNeias there is a report of a dove that flew into the Kaminetz Yeshivah and wouldn't be dissuaded from returning every day. Inevitably, people are talking about it being a gilgul.

I'm not going to denounce this belief. There are many bloggers who see it as their "holy" mission to criticize or mock other people's beliefs which they see as irrational or otherwise mistaken. But although people certainly differ in the extent to which they are rational, everyone in the world has some irrational beliefs, be it in the sphere of religion or elsewhere. Furthermore, personally I rarely see any constructive purpose in criticizing or mocking the beliefs of others; such pursuits are usually just about putting others down to make oneself feel big. So if people want to believe that the dove is a gilgul, then, as we used to say, gezunte heit! Live and be well. I don't think that people are harmed by such things.

But in the comments section of the ViN post, the argument about gilgul turns ugly. After one person mentions that Chazal and the Rishonim did not believe in such things, another person responds that the Zohar mentions it and anyone who denies the Zohar is a heretic. And actually the first person already raised the stakes to kefirah, quoting Saadiah Gaon as maintaining that belief in gilgulim falls into that category.

Why can't we all just get along? As is well known, there have been many rabbinic authorities who subscribed to belief in gilgulim. On the other hand, there have also been numerous opponents to this belief, including Rav Saadiah Gaon (Emunos v’Dayos 6:8); Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (see R. Margoliyos, in his introduction to Milchamos Hashem p. 19 note 11); Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud (Emunah Ramah 7); Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Avraham Ibn Latif (Rav Poalim, p. 9 section 21); Rav Chasdai Crescas (Ohr Hashem, ma’amar 4, derash 7); Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkkarim 4:29); and Rav Avraham Bedersi (Ktav Hitnatzlut leRashba). See too Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a (I am told that certain Chassidim will never study Rashash because of his comments on this topic). Also see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 50:2. For further discussion, see Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10 (2001).

If someone does not share your belief regarding the existence/non-existence of gilgulim, just let them be! Is it really necessary to denounce other people as heretics or fools? Just be aware, and politely inform others, that there have been many Torah authorities on both sides of this issue.

On a lighter note, I was told a terrific story by someone who studied at Gateshead yeshivah in England. A bird once flew into the Beis HaMidrash, and someone approached the Rosh Yeshivah and said, "Efsher it's a gilgul?"

Replied the Rosh Yeshivah, "Efsher it's a feigel?"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Doctors "Baffled" by Medical "Miracle"!

"Boy, 3, without cerebellum changes medical science"

"Boy born without cerebellum a 'mystery' to doctors"

"Medical miracle: New York boy living without cerebellum"

"Boy Living Without Cerebellum – A Medical Miracle"

"Child With Missing Cerebellum Shows Power of Human Spirit"

These are the headlines today in various news outlets, regarding Chase Britton, a three-year-old boy who (allegedly) has no cerebellum, and even more significantly, no pons - the part of the brain stem that controls respiration. And I'm sure that in the Orthodox community, this story will be picked up and presented to serve several purposes. It shows that, unlike Chazal, these know-it-all doctors really don't know anything! It shows that supernatural miracles take place! It shows that brain-stem death is not death!

Anyone who is thinking along these lines should read the following article at NeuroLogica: Reporting Medical Cases as Human Interest Stories: Chase Britton Edition.

The story of Chase Britton is marvelous and inspirational - but let's not make it into something that it isn't.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Detached from Reality

On several occasions, I have commented on various statements by rabbinic figures that are detached from reality. But in those cases, at least the errors are understandable; since the authors really are detached from reality, having had an entirely different education and being culturally isolated from the wider world. Much less forgivable are writings by secular people that are detached from reality.

There are few people more detached from reality than the Israeli secular left. I try not to read Ha-aretz too often, as it is depressing to see just how bad self-hating Jews can be. And so I was pleased to see an article entitled "Why there's no revolution in Israel." Finally, I thought to myself, even Ha-aretz can recognize that Israel is a league above from its Arab neighbors.

Alas, I was mistaken!

The author's reason as to why in Israel, unlike in the Arab countries, there are no protests? Because:

the truth is that it is difficult to expect the Israeli public to take to the streets, because in fact it has too many things to protest.

Ah yes! Unlike in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Albania, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iran, where there is only a single thing to protest, in Israel there are just so many terrible things that it's difficult to know where to start! That's why there are no protests!

The rest of the article presents similar such mindboggling nonsense, such as the claim that Israel's politicians have failed to realize that the population's exhaustion and desire for quiet have led to the yearning for a strong leader. In fact, it is the secular left's exhaustion and desire for quiet - and in particular, their hopelessly naive desire for warm acceptance by the international community - which have led to the desire for concessions even where these are accompanied by dangers so obvious that even the left acknowledge that they are tremendous risks.

The author subsequently admits that Israel is hardly short on protests, thus neatly overturning her earlier claim, but then argues that they have all been futile. Of course, it's difficult to get governments to change their minds, but at least in a democracy, the government can be changed regularly - and their awareness of this is what motivates them to be attuned to the people's needs and desires.

It goes without saying that Israel is not perfect. But the conclusion of the Ha-aretz article, that Israelis should be envious of their Arab neighbors, is a sad reflection on its author. Not just her detachment from reality, but also her singular lack of appreciation of all the myriad ways in which Israel is a league above its Arab neighbors.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Suckers for Orthodoxy

In the course of researching the topic of metzitzah b'peh - sucking the blood of the circumcision, via the mouth - I came across something fascinating. The August 2004 edition of Pediatrics contains an article discussing health problems that resulted from metzitzah b'peh, and digresses from a medical discussion to report the following:

Because the Talmudic injunction to perform metzitza did not explicitly stipulate oral suction, 160 years ago, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Chasam Sofer), a leading rabbinical authority, ruled that metzitza could be conducted by instrumental suction, a ruling quickly adopted by most rabbinical authorities. Consequently, the great majority of ritual circumcisions are performed today with a sterile device and not by oral suction by the mohel. However, some orthodox rabbis have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs and strongly resist any change in the traditional custom of oral metzitza.

Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, took great umbrage at this. He responded as follows:

Putting aside the question of the accuracy of the authors’ rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer (see, for example, She’eilos U’teshuvos Maharam Shik, Orach Chaim 152), or the correctness of their assessment of how “the great majority of ritual circumcisions are performed today” (in the Orthodox community, at least, I believe that many if not most brissen, certainly in the New York metropolitan area, are done with metzitza b’peh), the notion that rabbis who require metzitza b’peh do so because they “have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs” is nothing less than outrageous. This type of haughty condescension has no place in a medical journal and is an affront to the great geonim, tzaddikim and morei hora’a of our generation and generations past who have insisted that metzitza must be done b’peh as a matter of strict halacha. To impugn the religious motivation and halachic integrity of these Torah giants is a libelous cheap shot that reveals far more about the animus of the authors of the Pediatrics article than it does about the halachic status of metzitza b’peh.

In fact, the authors' rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer is entirely accurate, as R. Dr. Shlomo Sprecher has demonstrated in a superb article in Hakirah. But what especially interests me here is R. Zweibel's outrage at the claim that rabbis who required metzitza b’peh felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs, which R. Zweibel considers to be impugning their religious motivation and halachic integrity. After all, Chasam Sofer was explicit that this was his motivation and the basis for his halachic determinations!

I understood from our Sages that it is necessary to be one who preserves the Torah. They warned against those who provide an opening and seek leniencies for the radicals of our people who desire them. If these radicals find a minute crack, they will greatly expand it into a breach… Therefore, it is best to elevate the nature of the prohibition… That is because due to our many sins there is a great increase today of people who say they have no concern with Rabbinic prohibitions since G-d did not command them… We find the wicked writing on Shabbos because they claim it is only a Rabbinic prohibition. They have no concern with anything which has been commanded only by our Sages and not by G-d Himself… (Chasam Sofer, Kovetz Teshuvot #58)

Chasam Sofer himself saw no need to apply this policy to metzitzah b'peh, which in his time had not been challenged by the Reformers. He was able to evaluate it without any meta-halachic considerations, which is why he could make the simply and accurate observation that it was instituted as a medical precaution and thus could be freely abandoned if the doctors determined that it was harmful. But for disciple Maharam Schick, with whom metzitzah b'peh was something that the Reformers attempted to abolish as part of their general approach, it was necessary to apply his mentor's approach to this issue, and to elevate metzitzah b'peh to the level of halachah l'Moshe miSinai. He may not have been consciously employing this approach, but if not, it was surely operating subconsciously. And since it was the explicit policy of his mentor the Chasam Sofer, it is ironic that R. Zweibel considers it to be a deficiency in religious motivations and halachic integrity. He is effectively leveling these accusations at Chasam Sofer!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Orthodox Judaism vs. Rationalist Judaism

A while ago I heard of two people who were told about this website, and who assumed from its title - Rationalist Judaism - that it was an alternate movement in Judaism, opposed to Orthodox Judaism. In other words, just as people broke away from traditional, Torah-true Orthodoxy with the Reform and Conservative movements, it was assumed that this website represents a similar such break. Note that this assumption was not reached based on what these people had read on this website - for they hadn't read any of it - but based on the title alone. As such, a friend of mine was concerned and suggested that I change the name of this website to "Rationalist Orthodox Judaism."

After I had finished laughing, it occurred to me that, in a way, they had a point.

The term "Orthodox," as applied to Judaism, has two meanings - the colloquial meaning, and the academic definition. Colloquially, "Orthodox" simply refers to people who are committed to halachah and are part of the Orthodox community. But in the academic study of Judaism, "Orthodox" refers to a particular approach to Judaism which began with the Chasam Sofer as a reaction to Reform. There have been several proposed features of Orthodox society which were a novelty, including its practice of segregation from the larger Jewish community, its approach to halachic stricture, its opposition to secular studies, its new role for the yeshivah, and most of all its traditionalism - its fervent opposition to any change perceived as coming from the outside. (I recently wrote a paper on this topic, which I will be e-publishing on this website at some point.) The approach to Judaism practiced before that is referred to as "traditional Judaism."

Now, there is a question raised in academic circles as to whether "Orthodox" is an appropriate label for various forms of Judaism today. For example, if Orthodoxy is defined by its opposition to secular studies, can Modern Orthodoxy be defined as Orthodox? The same question could be raised with regard to Rationalist Judaism - whether one is referring to the Rationalist Judaism of Rambam and other medieval figures, or to the Rationalist Judaism that we are exploring on this website. Rambam was not an Orthodox Jew - but was he a traditional Jew, or a rationalist Jew? Is rationalism such a distinct approach that it can be considered a category separate from "traditional" and "Orthodox"? Or does it function on a different plane from such categories, which have more to do with practice and social features than intellectual differences?

Of course, there are no absolute answers to such questions. Still, it is interesting to ponder upon. In the meanwhile, I am not changing the title of this website!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rav Shlomo Zalman's Mistake - UPDATED

(The following post should not be misconstrued as expressing a lack of respect towards Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, ztz"l. I lived around the corner from him for several years, spoke with him on a few occasions, and I have tremendous respect for him. He was justly renowned not only for his incredible knowledge, wisdom and saintliness, but also for his breadth and open-mindedness. Yet "open-mindedness" is a relative term, and he was nevertheless a product of the charedi world.)

In Shulchan Shlomo (vol. III p. 24) it records that for a long time, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach categorically rejected the notion that brain death constitutes death. His reasoning was based on the Gemara in Erechin 6a, which states that if a pregnant woman dies, there is no chance of survival for the fetus. With a pregnant woman who suffers brain death, on the other hand, the fetus can survive. Hence, Rav Shlomo Zalman deduced, brain death is not death.

Yet there is no basis for this derivation. One simply cannot draw any inferences from this Gemara to brain death, which is a radically different scenario from anything that Chazal could have had in mind. When the Gemara says that a dead woman cannot deliver a live baby, this was merely describing the reality of 1500 years ago and it surely has no bearing whatsoever on the modern question of whether brain death is death. The fact that Rav Shlomo Zalman drew such inferences demonstrates how Poskim are accustomed to drawing halachic conclusions from the Gemara even when there is no reason to do so - i.e. when the Gemara is not remotely useful in addressing a novel, modern situation.

Now, some people at this point will be hopping mad, and will be wondering how I could possibly be so brazen as to say that Rav Shlomo Zalman was using the wrong methodology. But he eventually admitted it himself! Shulchan Shlomo notes that this was after being presented with the report of an experiment in which a pregnant sheep was decapitated and its body maintained with a respirator. The baby lamb was successfully delivered via C-section. Everybody agrees that a decapitated sheep is dead, and yet its baby survived. Rav Shlomo Zalman therefore noted that today, we have the ability to maintain certain bodily systems even in the absence of others, and thus Chazal's criteria no longer apply. He thus acknowledged that he had been mistaken in thinking that the Gemara about a pregnant woman's death could be used to resolve the contemporary question of brain death.

Rav Shlomo Zalman's own eventual conclusion about brain death was that although complete cellular death of the entire brain is indeed considered death, brain-stem death does not clearly qualify as such. However, the point that I want to bring out is that even Rav Shlomo Zalman made the mistake of using a traditional, Talmudic-halachah based approach, when others would have recognized from the outset that this is entirely inappropriate in such a case (as did I, as soon as I read about Rav Shlomo Zalman's deduction from the Gemara about a pregnant woman, even before I discovered that he retracted). It is especially significant that it was Rav Shlomo Zalman who did this - as I noted last week, Rav Shlomo Zalman himself acknowledged that there are no precedents in the Gemara for drawing halachic conclusions about cloning. But his recognition of that with something as novel as cloning did not mean that he recognized it as also being the case with determining the moment of death.

It is unfortunate to have to draw attention to the error of such a great person. But such misguided approaches to resolving the question of brain death are, tragically, all too common - and since it is a matter of life and death, it is important to be aware of the tendency to make such mistakes.

UPDATE - I just read the discussion of Rav Shlomo Zalman's view in the RCA document. They stress that there was no retraction on the halachah of brain death, just a withdrawal of one of the arguments that he formerly presented. The impression that I received from Shulchan Shlomo was quite different - that this was his primary argument, and that as a result of the sheep experiment, he modified his view somewhat from categorical rejection of brain death to stringent concern that brain-stem death might not equal complete brain death.

Furthermore - and most significantly - the RCA document suggests that due to various reasons, the sheep experiment is not analogous to the Gemara's case, and that cases where pregnancy continues despite brain death caused by stroke or cancer are analogous and do indeed demonstrate that brain death is not death. But this is exactly the same sort of mistake that Rav Shlomo Zalman admitted to making. The Gemara is not talking about a case of a person who is brain dead and has their body maintained via a respirator - such a situation was beyond the imagination of anyone back then, and no inference can be brought from the Gemara for such a case. One can make a reasonable argument that the fact of a brain-dead woman being able to grow a baby within her indicates that brain death is not death - but one cannot draw this conclusion as a halachic inference from the Gemara.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who Are The Experts?

(Note - there are some announcements at the end of this post)

Over at Hirhurim's Symposium on the Ethics of Brain Death and Organ Donation, Rabbi Yaakov Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Research: Medicine and Halacha, concludes his article with the following sentence:

While medical technology has changed, the definition of death remains constant and we have to turn to our mesorah, halachic sources and our gedolim to determine which signs today demonstrate that a person’s soul has left his body.

Echoing a similar view as to who is an authority on such matters, Dr. Leon Zacharowicz made the following proposal:

I suggested... setting up a ‘yarchei kallah’ type program on this sugya, similar to the yarchei kallahs I’ve helped Rabbi Weiner run in Jerusalem and around the world since 1998. These chavrusa-style learning programs have included shiurim by some of the most renowned halachic authorities and experts worldwide, including (partial listing): Rabbi E. Blech, Rabbi Y. Breitowitz, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ztl, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, Rabbi Jacobowits, Rabbi Kaufman, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Lazerson, Rabbi David Morgensten, Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, and others... Why not learn these sugyas in depth, “inside,” with the sources, and then have a chance to hear what the major poskim have to say? One can then, in an appropriate fashion, raise questions, make suggestions, and hear what the poskim have to say.

Here lies the crux of the problem. There is a vast epistemological gulf which separates the worldview of those who reject brain death as death and those who accept it. It revolves around the following question: What qualifies someone as an expert to determine whether brain death is death?

For people with a charedi worldview (and note that you don't have to be charedi to have a charedi worldview - but it helps!), the answer is as Rabbi Weiner presented it: the Gedolim are the experts. Dr. Zacharowicz included the YU Gedolim in his list, but the idea is still the same. Those who have achieved greatness in Gemara and halachah are (a) automatically qualified to have an opinion on the topic, and (b) are the most (and effectively only) qualified people to have an opinion on it.

But there is a different view.

As noted in several previous posts, there are a few problems with a conventional reliance on Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim in tackling the topic of brain death. One is that these sources just don't address it. If you have a charedi worldview, you are likely to fail to acknowledge this, and still seek to make (unwarranted) inferences from earlier halachic sources in order to address it. But if you have - dare I say it - a rationalistic worldview, you will acknowledge that the Gemara in Yoma 85b is just not going to determine the halacha for brain death. The same goes for other sources, as I shall demonstrate in a future post.

Another problem with a conventional reliance on Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim in tackling the topic of brain death is that one has to be familiar with the scientific worldview of these sources. It's not just a matter of being aware of modern science (the importance of which is acknowledged by many Poskim) - it's also a matter of being aware of ancient science, and being able and willing to understand the statements of Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim in light of that.

There are also other differences in worldview between rationalists and non-rationalists which affect one's conclusions in this area. I'm not just talking about questions such as to what extent is the nature of the soul a metaphysical matter, and to what extent a scientific matter. I am also referring to more general and fundamental differences, with regard to questions such as to what extent can one take initiative and be innovative, to what extent can one trust one's own evaluations, and other issues relating to rabbinic authority. This is similar to how Orthodoxy post-Chasam Sofer had a different approach to halachah than traditional Judaism pre-Chasam Sofer. It's not a matter of "right" versus "wrong," but it is two very different approaches, and someone who subscribes to one need not automatically accept the authority of someone who subscribes to the other.

Thus, to say that Poskim who have achieved greatness in Gemara and halachah are automatically qualified to have an opinion on the topic of brain death, is something which non-charedim would (and should) challenge. And to say that people who have not achieved renown as Poskim are not qualified to give opinions on this matter is likewise something which non-charedim would (and should) challenge.

I personally know three physicians who I think are extremely qualified to have opinions in this matter. They are not considered Poskim. Yet they are extremely learned in Shas and halachah - particularly in the area of medical halachah. Of no less importance is that they are knowledgeable not just in modern medicine, but also in the history of medicine, which means that they have a better understanding of Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim. (For example, they understand that when Rashi says to check the heart, his intent is to check for respiration, not pulse.) And also of no less importance in my eyes is that they are capable of analyzing issues methodically, rationally and comprehensively - more so than some of those renowned as Gedolim in both charedi and non-charedi circles.

(Note that Rabbi Broyde comments that "Nearly every person I respect as a Torah scholar of substance who is also well trained in the sciences supports the view that Jewish law ought to accept brain stem death when combined with respiratory failure, notwithstanding the opposition to this view by many eminent poskim." And a well-known physician who specializes in Jewish medical issues told me that virtually every frum doctor he knows accepts brain death as death - and that the few who do not are all charedi.)

All this reminds me of the Torah-Science controversy. For some people, it was obvious that the Gedolim were vastly more qualified than me to have opinions on Torah-science topics. And for others, precisely the reverse was true. It is important to recognize that these reflect fundamentally different worldviews. It is also important for rationalists not to make the mistake of unthinkingly adopting the charedi view that only Gedolim are qualified to have opinions and thereby to argue that there are other Gedolim too - although sometimes this may be a strategic move.

For further reading, see my posts Who is an Expert in Science? and Who is an Expert in Torah?

In other news: Don't forget that this Sunday, I am giving two lectures in Washington Heights; you can download the flyer at Books will be available, at a discount.

Plus: My lecture tour ends Monday, and I will have a blowout sale on any remaining books. You can place your order now, and I will fill them on a first come, first serve basis; if there are no books left, I will refund your money. See for descriptions of the books, but order them here for the discount:
The Challenge of Creation, Sacred Monsters, Perek Shirah: Nature's Song, and Man & Beast - each book is $27 including shipping anywhere in the US.


Set of all four books
- $95 including shipping anywhere in the US.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rabbeinu Bachya on the Soul and Mind

Previously, we explored Ramban's view on the soul. Now let us turn to Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher.

In his commentary to Bereishis 2:7, Rabbeinu Bachya cites both views regarding whether the soul is indivisible or tripartite. He notes that according to the latter view (which is that which Ramban says is supported by Chazal and which Ramban favors), whereas the vegetative soul is spread throughout the body, the rational soul is housed in the brain:

הנפש החכמה נמצאת באדם לבדו בה משתתף עם העליונים הקדושים העומדים לעד לעולם בחכמה ושכל ומשכנה במוח והיא הנקראת נשמה שנאמר ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים

Rabbeinu Bachya continues to note that while the account of the golem in Chazal supports the view that man contains three souls (of which the golem only possessed two), Scripture indicates that the soul is indivisible. Nevertheless, he does not appear to clearly decide the matter, and the point that is concerning him, and which he stresses, is that both views agree that the soul lives on in the next world after death.

Interestingly, whereas Rabbeinu Bachya here makes the unqualified statement that sechel is housed in the brain, in his commentary to Bereishis 1:26 he says that sechel comes from the brain and machshavah comes from the heart, and in his commentary to Bereishis 6:6 he says that the heart is the kli for machshavah, which originates in the brain. It seems that Rabbeinu Bachya was seeking to accommodate the Galenic view, of the mind being housed in the brain, with the traditional view found in Chazal that the heart houses the mind.

What can we take from Rabbeinu Bachya's writings for the modern dilemma of whether brain-death is death? Well, although he himself does not take a definitive stance on the nature of the soul, it does seem that he believes that if the soul could be differentiated, then the human part of it would be housed in the brain. The brain is the seat of the mind (even though he was also hanging on to the ancient view that the heart is also involved), the mind is what defines us as human beings, and thus the neshamah would be in the brain and manifest itself through the brain's activity.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

When There Is No Halachic Precedent

As noted previously, the problem with deducing the status of brain death from the Gemara is not so much that Chazal had incorrect ideas about which organs house the mind, but rather that Chazal simply don't deal with which bodily systems determine life and death in the first place. Chazal's ruling that a person trapped under rubble has a chance of being alive and surviving only if they are breathing - which was certainly true at the time! - in no way tells us the status of someone who is brain-dead and breathing only by virtue of a respirator. The RCA document expresses this point very well: "the entire purpose of this סוגיא in יומא is to offer practical direction to those involved in a rescue from a collapsed building, and not to address the deeper issue of what actually marks the end of life."

A rabbi with whom I was discussing this topic was very concerned when I mentioned this point. "How can you say that the Torah and Chazal do not address this vital issue?" he protested. "You can't say that determining death is something that is just not in the mesorah!"

Well, it won't be the first time that this has happened. And greater people than me have pointed it out.

Rabbi Nachman Cohen, chairman of the Board of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, told me that Dr. Abraham S. Abrahams would often tell at AOJS conferences how he had once consulted Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz"l about the halachos relating to cloning. "I'm sorry," said Rav Shlomo Zalman, "but the Torah just doesn't say anything about it." (see too this post.)

That's why I argued that in order to derive the Torah perspective on determining death, we need to look instead at traditional, albeit non-halachic, sources on what human life and identity actually means, rather than looking to make inferences about determining death from halachic rulings (which just can't be done). My friend Rabbi Dr. Eddie Reichman pointed out to me that others have made this claim in similar situations. Rabbi Ezra Bick, in an article in Tradition, discusses a critical question with IVF: is it the egg donor or the birth mother who is halachically considered to be the parent? As with determining death, there are those who seek to deduce the answer from various statements in the Gemara. And as with determining death, Rabbi Bick demonstrates that such inferences are unwarranted, and that the Gemara really does not contain any halachos from which we can resolve this novel, modern situation. He further points out that any attempt to derive the halachah from Chazal is hindered by the problem that Chazal did not realize that a baby develops from a woman's ova (they thought that it develops from the sperm). Instead, Rabbi Bick proposes, we need to draw guidance for a halachic conclusion from the general trend of non-halachic statements in Chazal:

Returning to the major question of the halakhic model of conception, is there any halakhic source sufficient to resolve it? The answer is no. I propose instead to attempt to discover the general conceptual framework of the Sages concerning conception...

The launching point for what I have done is the conclusion that no normal halakhic proof exists for deciding the question of maternity. Having accepted that as a starting point, I posited that it would be valid to use an entirely different method in order to reach a conclusion.

What does one do when there are no sources for a halakhic answer to a pressing question? Our usual answer is "hafokh ba, hafokh ba" - keep looking! There is always a source. But are there not dozens of halakhot and legal principles in the Talmud which have no apparent scriptural source? Are we to assume that there must have been a source, or that the Sages of the Talmud were granted a unique (prophetic?) ability to originate halakha? One would be hard-pressed to find a source for such a position. There are a limited number of specific instances where the Tosafot, for example, state that a particular talmudic halakha is based presumably on some scriptural text, although unknown. That is because the halakha in question strikes Tosafot as not being particularly self- evident, or even logical. In numerous other cases, however, the only source of a halakha is Reason, although it does not represent, strictly speaking, the only logical possibility. The Sages have certain conceptions of law and understanding of various concepts which underlay halakhic conclusions. Our topic is in fact a perfect example. If it is true, as R. Bleich claims, that the Sages consider birth to be the determinant of motherhood, what is their source? If sperm donation determines paternity without intercourse, or vice-versa (the question of paternity in artificial insemination), what are the (pre-Talmudic) sources?

Halakha is riddled with concepts that reflect the assumed conception of the Talmudic Sages on a particular topic. In our halakhic investigations, we attempt to base all our conclusions on the determination of the Talmudic concepts, because we accept implicitly the legal formulations of the Sages. Rarely does a contemporary halakhic discussion investigate the sources of Talmudic concepts. It is simply accepted that certain basic assumptions underlie many halakhic formulations, and we accept those assumptions if they are evinced in Talmudic halakha.

What then do we do if there is no Talmudic halakha relevant to the assumptions needed for a decision in our question? It appears to me that we are justified in trying to determine the Talmudic assumptions, the base conceptions of the Talmudic world-view, from other sources. This is not the same as the oft-rejected aggadic source for halakhic conclusions. To derive a halakha from a single aggadic source is misleading, as we cannot be sure what the intent or precise factual meaning of the aggada is. To use the aggada to determine a general approach of the Sages to a question, in order to determine what halakha must necessarily arise from that approach, is, although risky and lacking the certitude we are accustomed to expect in halakhic discourse, in principle as valid as what the Sages would have done in the first place had they faced the question we are facing today. Were there to exist absolutely no Talmudic guidance for our question, neither in halakhic or aggadic sources, in principle we would have to formulate for ourselves the proper way to understand the necessary concepts, in the same way that the Talmudic scholars did. I cannot imagine any serious Torah scholar being happy with such a situation; we depend upon direct Talmudic sources as a fish depends on water. Nonetheless, I believe it is a valid way to derive halakha; indeed, it is one of the bases for Talmudic halakha itself.

...If it is fair to derive philosophical concepts from the halakha, it must be because these underlying concepts are basic to the world-view of Torah and not only halakha in the strictly legal sense. There is a stricter level of logical rigor required in halakhic definition than in aggadic definition; hence it is risky going from less-well defined aggada to the strict domain of halakha, but it is not excluded in principle. If the Halakha has a world-view and a conceptual basis, which is the conceptual framework of the Sages, there may be cases where there is no other way to determine that conceptual basis other than to examine the wider framework as expressed in aggada.

This is completely different from trying to derive the halakha directly from an aggadic comment or story. Since the purpose of the aggada is not to decide halakha, the halakhic conclusion may be totally irrelevant and not necessarily accurate. However, the conceptual conclusion is not incidental to the aggada but directly implied by it, and if the same conceptual conclusion has halakhic ramifications, they are in principle valid. There are two problems here, first in determining the conceptual conclusion with the desired degree of precision, and then determining the halakhic ramification, which necessitates a further degree of specificity not always possible for philosophic concepts. The conclusion will be almost unavoidably tentative. In cases where direct legal analogy or derivation is non-existent, there may be no choice.

One of the basic endeavors of contemporary talmudic research is the attempt to uncover the conceptual models of halakhic conclusions. This consists not only in proposing a svara for a given halakha, but in formulating the second~layer conceptual assumption of the first-level svara. Unless this is a merely intellectual exercise, it implies that the underlying conceptual model has halakhic validity; i.e., that further halakhic conclusions may be derived from it. Students of modern talmudists - especially those of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik - are familiar with this process; it is a daily exercise in advanced talmudic reasoning.

This then is our first assumption, that the halakha is based on conceptual models. Our second assumption is that the conceptual model is not in itself a halakhic statement. Hence, it is in principle not limited in operation only to the realm of halakha. One consequence of this assumption is that we could, on the basis of conceptions derived from the halakha, formulate a proper Jewish philosophy; i.e., derive aggada from the halakha. This, of course, was the basis for most of the Rav's philosophic endeavors, and in fact is, in his opinion, the most, perhaps only, valid way to discover the philosophy of Judaism. A second consequence is that in principle it would be possible to derive the conceptual model from the aggada. If the conceptual framework has applications in the halakha and the aggada, it may be derived, at least in principle, from either. Hence, eventually, in this way, we will reach halakhic conclusions based ultimately on aggadic source material.

- Rabbi Ezra Bick, "Ovum Donations: A Rabbinic Conceptual Model of Maternity," Tradition 28:1 (1993) pp. 28-45.

I believe that determining death is the exact same situation. Like IVF maternity determination, there is no halachic source sufficient to resolve it. Like IVF maternity determination, attempts to derive the halachah from Chazal are hindered by their mistaken beliefs about physiology (in IVF, with Chazal's lack of awareness of the existence of the ova, and in the case of determining the significance of the functioning of bodily systems, with Chazal's lack of awareness of the role of these systems). But there is a general trend of non-halachic statements in the Rishonim - from which we can derive a framework of values that can be translated to halachah - which is that human life (and the human soul) is defined by the mind. I already demonstrated how Ramban clearly presents this view, and I shall also demonstrate it to be found in other Rishonim.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Breath of the Nostrils

Anyone who believes that brain death is death (and even those who believe that cardiac death is death) must contend with the Gemara, which seems to establish respiration as the sole criterion for life. The Gemara says, "Everyone agrees that life is manifest through the (breathing of the) nose, as it says, 'in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life'."

Now, the truth is that this Gemara even presents problems for those who accept respiration as death, since (a) Chazal held that cessation of respiration is terminal, but we know that it can be restarted, and (b) you can have someone who is quite definitely dead in terms of both brain and heart, but is still breathing via artificial means - one can even make a corpse breath. Be that as it may, let us discuss the various ways in which those who accept brain death deal with the Gemara's exegesis, and I will show that my discussion this week about Ramban offers an additional answer.

The first approach is that the exegesis only refers to someone who is spontaneously breathing, via instructions from the brain. Otherwise, the breathing is no more significant than that which can be accomplished artificially with a corpse. This is the view of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and it is perfectly reasonable.

Another approach is to say that the Passuk is only being used to say that if one is looking for respiration, the nose is the place to look for it, but not that respiration is the sole determinant of life. (This was said by R. Moshe Feinstein.) As an elaboration or variant on this, some say that the exegesis is an asmachta rather than a derashah - it's just a Scriptural hook on which to hang a pre-existing idea, but not a Scriptural source for an idea. (Some would say that even a derashah itself is not authoritative - even Chasam Sofer says that derashos are not Sinaitic - and we see that there were derashos performed to show that the firmament is solid.)

But now we have a new answer. The exegesis from the passuk shows that life is detectable at the nostrils. But what kind of life? The original passuk is talking about animals as well as man, which all died in the deluge: "Everything with the soul of the spirit of life in its nostrils, from everything in the dry land, died" (Gen 7:22). So the breath which is detected in the human nostrils need not necessarily be the breath of the nefesh hamaskeles - it may be the breath of the nefesh habehemah. The presence of the breath of the nefesh habehemah is nearly always a perfect indicator that the nefesh hamaskeles is also present, and certainly functions that way for the case discussed in the Gemara. But in the unusual modern case of a brain-dead person, the presence of a nefesh habehemah, indicated by breathing, does not mean that there is a nefesh hamaskeles is present.

Unfortunately, one really can't prove anything either way about what the Gemara meant. To my mind, it really shows why this Gemara can't be used as a source for determining time of death in modern situations, which are so different from the situations that Chazal dealt with. The RCA document expresses this point very well: "the entire purpose of this סוגיא in יומא is to offer practical direction to those involved in a rescue from a collapsed building, and not to address the deeper issue of what actually marks the end of life." (Unfortunately the RCA quotes various Poskim who do not seem to have appreciated that point.) The deeper issue of what actually marks the end of life has to be figured out by studying traditional views of what human life actually is, not making inferences from a discussion in the Gemara which is speaking about an entirely different topic.

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.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Day of the Golem

Yesterday, we noted that Ramban takes the view that a human being has three separate souls (or "life-forces"): the growth-nature of a plant, the animate life of an animal, and a rational intellect superimposed on top of that. Ramban brings various proofs for his view, one of which is especially intriguing and relevant. He quotes the Gemara about Rava creating a man - a golem - which he sent to Rabbi Zeira. Upon discovering that this "man" could not communicate, Rabbi Zeira bid it to return to dust. Ramban does not elaborate upon exactly how this proves his point, but apparently it is because this golem must have possessed a nefesh habehemah, since it was animate, and yet we see that it did not possess a nefesh hamaskeles, since it could not communicate. Since it possessed one and not the other, this shows that they are distinct entities. (Note that it also shows that a man with an animal soul and no rational soul can exist after Creation.)

There is another important point to note with regard to this story of the golem. Rav Yaakov Emden, citing Chessed L'Avraham, deduces from Rabbi Zeira's destruction of the golem that it is permissible to kill it, and explains that this must be because it only has an animal soul, but not a human soul.

Note that this post still did not argue that according to Ramban, someone who is brain-dead has lost his rational soul. We will discuss that possibility in a forthcoming post. But it does seem clear that according to Ramban, it is theoretically possible to have a person who is just as alive as an animal, and yet is lacking a rational soul, and whom it is therefore halachically permissible to "kill," since he is not humanly alive.

In other news - for details of my forthcoming lectures at the Bridge Shul in Washington Heights on Feb. 13th, see this flyer.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Evolution of Man

Yesterday, we saw how Ramban presents two different views on the soul. Plato’s view was that the human soul is a single indivisible entity, comprised of a vegetative-like power of growth, an animalistic life-force, and a rational intellect. Aristotle, on the other hand, took the position that these three components are distinct; in other words, a human being contains the growth-nature of a plant, the animate life of an animal, and has a rational intellect superimposed on top of that.

Ramban explains his reasons for preferring the latter view - reasons that we shall explore in a future post. For now, let us focus on how he sees this view as fitting in with the pesukim in Bereishis.

In his commentary to Bereishis 1:26, Ramban says that the creation of man was a joint effort, with the earth providing the animal component, and God providing the divine component. He then quotes a Midrash which says that the verse "Let the land bring forth a living spirit, according to its kind" - which, according to peshat, refers to the creation of animal life - midrashically refers to the spirit of Adam. Ramban explains that this cannot refer to the totality of Adam's spirit, since that was something divine, and thus not produced from the earth. Rather, this refers to the animalistic spirit within man - the one that made him animate. Only afterward, when he was already a walking humanoid, did he receive the divine spirit (of the rational soul). Ramban elaborate upon this idea in his commentary to Bereishis 2:7, and Seforno presents the same approach.

There are significant implications of this for evolution. True, Ramban did not believe that man is on the animal family tree. But he did believe that before man was man, he was a humanoid creature that was qualitatively not different from animals in any way whatsoever. There are thus no innate theological problems, according to Ramban, in saying that man's body evolved from other animals - since in Ramban's view, Adam himself was originally an animal.

All this also means that according to Ramban, it is possible to have someone who looks human, and is even animate, and just as alive as an animal, but who is nevertheless not human - because they lack the "rational soul."

Daniel Winkler, in "Conceptual Issues in the Determination of Death," notes that even if it possible to make a definition of personhood and to ascertain that a brain-dead person has lost personhood, there is still no clear link between loss of personhood and death: "A philosophically sophisticated defender of the heart-lung definition of death may find it perfectly consistent to say that a given patient has lost his personhood but not his life, and that after brain death there may follow a period of life during which the patient is not a person." But according to Ramban, if a person lost his personhood - which Ramban defines as his rational soul - then while he would still be alive, he would not be alive as a human, only as an animal.

To be continued...

(When submitting comments, please stick to the precise topic of the post, and don't "jump the gun." Note that this post did not argue that according to Ramban, someone who is brain-dead has lost his rational soul. We will discuss that possibility on another occasion.)