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Popular Misconceptions and My Mistake in Enabling Them
My perennial mistake, which was especially prominent in the current brain-death controversy, is to assume that if I write something carefully, people will read it carefully. I should not have been surprised that many people are strongly condemning what I wrote based on a careless reading of it - because this sort of thing has happened many times before. And I should not have considered it adequate to make important points once - if something is important, it should be repeated again and again and again. In this post I would like to highlight, address and dispel the most common misunderstandings of my approach and criticisms thereof. The examples of the misconceptions about my views are from comments on R. Maryles' blog and elsewhere.
1. Misconception: That I judge brain death as death
Example: "My main issue with his approach is that who says that the body's life does not have intrinsic spiritual value on its own even if one says the neshama has left and only a nefesh remains (since the nefesh is in the blood, and the blood is pumping, I assume it remains)? By allowing one to "kill" a brain-dead person, it is treating the human body without a mind as an animal."
What My Position Really Is: Indeed, it could well be that one may still not kill a nefesh without a neshamah (although I strongly suspect that Chazal and the Rishonim would judge otherwise). My point was not that brain death is death; it is that those who rule on the matter without considering the significance of Chazal's knowledge and options available have not performed a proper analysis.
2. Misconception: That I believe halachah to be necessarily based upon science
Example: "R. Slifkin's error lies in his apparent assumption that the halacha is based on scientific facts - or more correctly, on the conclusions scientists might draw from a given set of factual circumstances. To me, this assumption is rather unfounded, and is quite inconsistent with our notion of the halacha as a system of law - a system with its own internal logic and its own internal philosophical system for viewing the world and its phenomena."
What My Position Really Is: I have repeatedly stressed that halachah is often independent of the scientific reality, for a variety of reasons. One example is the laws of bishul, where it is possible to cook something and not transgress bishul, and it is also possible not to cook something and yet to transgress it. Even in the case of defining death, halachah is clearly not identical to science; as I pointed out, science defines bacteria as being alive, whereas halachah doesn't. But sometimes, the halachah is built upon a certain understanding of the natural world - such as Chazal's ruling that one does not transgress Shabbos to save the life of an 8-month fetus, because it is not viable, and their ruling that one may kill lice on Shabbos, because they spontaneously generate. I argued that Chazal's understanding of physiology, and all the more so the medical options available to them, are likely to have affected their rulings on this issue, and therefore those who analyze it without taking this possibility into account have not performed a proper analysis.
3. Misconception: That I believe halachah should change in response to our greater scientific knowledge - which leads to Conservative Judaism
Example: "the obvious conclusion of RNS's approach is the wholesale elimination of much of Hilchos Tereifos... this is the line between Orthodoxy and Conservatism"
What My Position Really Is: If RYGB wants to condemn this position as being Conservative, then it is others that he is labeling this way, not me. His claim that "we are accustomed to assume that Chazal are the final arbiters of Halachah regardless of whatever thought process under-girded their rulings" is a condemnation of many great Acharonim and modern Poskim, who do indeed believe that halachah should change in response to our greater scientific knowledge - with examples being those such as Rav Lampronti, who forbade killing lice on Shabbos for this reason (as does Rav Nissim Karelitz and Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg), and most Gedolim today,who forbid eating worms found in fish, against the Gemara. But unlike them, I personally do not believe that in general, our greater scientific knowledge warrants changing halachah. However, in cases of potential pikuach nefesh, virtually all Poskim do not rely on Chazal's formulations, but rather follow modern medicine - with the case of the 8-month fetus being a potent example of this. In fact, this case is much less problematic than that of the 8-month fetus. In that case, everyone simply overrides Chazal's formulation and effectively acknowledges it to be wrong. In this case, Chazal's formulation was absolutely correct, given the circumstances - if I went back in time 1500 years, and was checking signs of life in a body buried under rubble, I would also be looking to see if the person is breathing, not doing a scan of brain activity!
4. Misconception: That I am advocating working outside of the halachic system in this case.
What My Position Really Is: We need to do the same in this case that we do in similar cases of medical halachah, such as with Chazal's ruling on the 7 vs. 8 month fetus. We look at Chazal's underlying value - in that case, that Shabbos is only transgressed for saving a life that is viable - and take into account that their particular application of that value may have been influenced by either their misunderstanding of fetal viability or the limited medical options available to them. So, too, here: Chazal's underlying values were the preservation of human life. But when considering their application of this value - their ruling that when checking a person buried under rubble, one checks his breathing (which some see as an indication of pulse), we must take into account the possibility that their particular application of that value may have been influenced by either their misunderstanding of physiology, or by the limited medical options available to them. Now, ignoring Chazal's application of their values is not the conventional way of following Chazal, which is why I don't believe that it should be done in the case of lice, or worms in fish - unlike many Poskim. But in cases of pikuach nefesh such as the 8-month fetus, this is the approach that most Poskim take.