Response to RYGB - UPDATED
Over at R. Harry Maryles' blog, he has posted a critique of my Summary on the brain-death issue by Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhoffer (henceforth RYGB). It seems as though R. Maryles wasn't reading my posts too carefully; he describes my goal as defending R. Tendler, whereas in fact I was doing no such thing.
Basically, RYGB's criticism is the same as much of those that appeared during the ban, and reflects a point of view which is sharply different from that of many of the Rishonim - and quite a few Acharonim, too. Except that in the case of medical halachah, this sort of posturing is not only ignoring a dominant trend amongst the Rishonim, but is even ignoring common halachic practice. I quote:
We are accustomed to assume that Chazal are the final arbiters of Halachah regardless of whatever thought process under-girded their rulings.
So am I - but not in the case of medical halachah. And nor are any Poskim. We don't follow Chazal's ruling that Shabbos can only be violated for a 7 month fetus and not an 8 month fetus. We know that an 8 month fetus is more viable, not less viable. And in cases not relating to human life, I am actually more Chazal-oriented than many Poskim. I follow Rav Herzog that we should follow Chazal's ruling on lice; others, such as Rav Lampronti and Rav Nissim Karelitz, say that since this was based on mistaken beliefs that lice spontaneously generate, we should not kill lice on Shabbos (what does RYGB have to say about them?). And I am fully aware that halachah is sometimes independent of the scientific reality. But in a case where Chazal's understanding of physiology - and the medical possibilities available to them - did inform their halachah, with life-and-death consequences, virtually no Posek would ignore that.
We assume that those thought processes are those of human beings far greater than ourselves – of rishonim k'malachim – and are very reticent to second-guess them, ever.
Who's "we"? The chareidi world indeed professes to believe that; but as has been amply documented, many Rishonim and Acharonim held that in scientific matters, Chazal had no advantage. And when it comes to medical matters, few people really believe that Chazal knew more than us. Nishtaneh hateva is the euphemism employed to explain why we don't follow Chazal's suggestions for refuos - but no doctor will say that those refuos worked 1400 years ago, either. Nor were 8-month old fetuses less viable than 7-month old fetuses back then.
Rabbi Slifkin is quite bold in his assertions. He purports to know – and to tell us – when an aggadic legend intended to be understood metaphorically. And he informs us categorically that these prooftexts are (notwithstanding their Midrashic sourcing!) not metaphorical. But who designated my friend the arbiter of these matters? ...It is therefore curious that Rabbi Slifkin neglects to inform us of Rabbi Kamelhar's detailed explanation of the metaphorical meaning of the Gemara in Berachos...
RYGB is plainly unfamiliar with my monograph on the kidneys (and it is rather foolhardy of him to critique my summary without familiarizing himself with my full treatment of the topic). I am well aware that many recent rabbinic authorities interpreted the Talmudic account of the kidneys' function metaphorically; I cited several in my monograph. However, this was clearly an exercise in apologetics, motivated by the desire to maintain Chazal as being correct, rather than an honest assessment of what they really meant. As I pointed out in my monograph, the Rishonim - such as Ramban, Tashbatz, R. Yehudah HaLevi, and various talmidim of Rashba - were very clear that Chazal were speaking literally. So were many early Acharonim. There are no Rishonim (that I could find) who explain Chazal allegorically. Furthermore, the context of Chazal's statement indicates that it was intended literally, as does the fact that it is identical to the standard beliefs of their time and place. So who has more credibility - the Rishonim, or the late Acharonim who clearly just wanted to make Chazal look correct? On what basis does Rabbi Bechhoffer dismiss the Rishonim as being a less reliable (or unreliable - he doesn't even quote them) interpretation of Chazal?
At the very least, it is intellectually dishonest to not disclose that one's position is by no means definitive.
In my monograph, I discussed all the different interpretations that I found, and explained why I felt that the view of the Rishonim was far more credible. I look forward to RYGB publicly criticizing those who only cite the views that Chazal were infallible (or allegorical) and ignore all the Rishonim and Acharonim who say otherwise. Come on, RYGB: let's have a public statement about whether Gedolim such as Rav Moshe Shapiro are intellectually honest.
RYGB criticizes me for making a judgment on such a serious matter as brain death based on one particular interpretation of Chazal and not acknowledging other views. In fact, I explicitly discussed the other views, and explained my reasons for rejecting them. On the other hand, the Poskim who have ruled against brain death (and even those who accepted it) did not acknowledge the literalist interpretation of Chazal by the Rishonim and early Acharonim, and they did not explore its ramifications for this topic. I did not issue a formal ruling on brain death; I merely pointed out that those who do, must take into account the potential implications for this topic of Chazal's view of physiology and the medical options available to them, just as we do in other topics of medical halachah (and as some do even in non-medical matters). RYGB would apparently prefer instead that poskim completely ignore the potential implications of Chazal's view of physiology and the medical options available to them! RYGB's description of me is most apt for the Poskim he prefers:
To respond that one has not done the research is even more inexcusable... they have built a house of cards upon which they continue to be dan dinei nefashos.
I will finish off with a comment on RYGB's post by a friend of mine, R. Joseph Faith, which appeared on R. Maryles's blog - it is slightly edited here, but less so than there!
Sorry, but this post is logically problematic. We DO override Chazal in this very case - when we perform CPR on someone we find under a pile of rocks on Shabbos, when Chazal say that you leave such a person for dead! We override Chazal when we are mechalel Shabbos for an eight month old baby. According to this post's approach we should seemingly do neither.
Chazal's science is actually in many respects less sophisticated that the best science of their day, which was being done in the Greco-Roman world. Not only that, but the Yerushalmi shows clear evidence of (limited) familiarity with Greco-Roman scientific concepts, whilst the Bavli shows clear influence of Akkadian/Persian medical traditions. I struggle to understand R. Bechoffer's contention that this should not impact the halachic process at all - clearly halachic means have to be found in this case, but they have been found in other cases (such as the 8-month old baby).
Circulation was not generally understood until AFTER the Shulchan Aruch was published, we should remember to read the sources quoted by Rabbi Bechoffer and others in their historical contexts.
And here is a comment that I received from Rabbi Dr. RMH (Rationalist Medical Halachist):
I have said whatever I wanted to about this issue, and I have no strength right now to join this debate between R Slifkin and RYGB. However, R' Slifkin and I have been corresponding quite a bit, and I must say that I have been at least partly responsible for his taking on this matter in his blog. This is a very important issue, and I think RYGB was off the mark for many reasons.
#1 the attempt to explain the Gemara like Rav Kamelhar in HaTalmud Umadaey hatevel (HTUH) (and numerous similar attempt to explain chazal according to modern science) has been discussed so many times in this debate and reviewed so many times by RNS and the others, that I find it quite surprising that RYGB feels that this approach is ignored by RNS. The fact is, that further attempts to squash chazal into modern scientific understanding are becoming more and more untenable by the hour as science advances. A much more reasonable approach to this problem is the approach of RNS. If RYGB wants to disagree with this approach, that is his right, but to claim that RNS is disingenuous in not quoting HTUH this time relating to brain death is really kind of ignoring the volumes upon volumes of articles that RNS has already written on the subject. The same applies to the quote from the Chassam Sofer. The metaphorical vs. literal understanding of Chazal has been the subject of so much debate ad nauseum that I think RNS has said enough. He is only "guilty" of applying his consistent approach to the topic of brain death. If you want to disagree with him, fine, but to start throwing around the old stuff again about metaphorical vs literal, and did chazal know vs didn't they know yada yada? Those lines in the sand have already been drawn years ago when the RNS debacle broke loose. Now RYGB has found two more sources that he happened not to mention this time? what exactly is that going to accomplish?
RYGB writes: "Thus, it is untenable to assert – unilaterally and unequivocally! – on the basis of such questionable sources that Chazal believed in a certain medical system and that their positions are hence faulty."
I will assert just that, and I spent a month writing up those assertions in my blog. Ayein sham. Is it that "untenable" to say that chazal believed in the same medical system that everyone else did in those days, especially when repeatedly throughout shas they voice those very same beliefs? I don't believe so. If you would like to assume that Chazal knew the double helical structure of DNA and that thoughts occur in the brain, that is your right, but to claim that what they actually said is the same as what they actually believed is untenable? I'm sorry, the burden of proof lies on the one who wants to claim that they meant something else other than what they said.
RYGB also writes, "There is no definite evidence that Chazal believed that the heart and kidneys house the mind." I would refer RYGB to the seminal Teshuvah of the Chacham Tzvi #77 where he traces in page after page after page hundreds of sources in Chazal and the Rishonim and early Acharonim in excruciating detail how Chazal were of the belief that life and thought come from the heart. He also quotes in excruciating detail the medical theories of Aristotle and Galen that Chazal were based upon. The Chacham Tzvi does a much better job than I can on this matter. If that is not evidence enough, I don't think anything would ever be enough. Incidentally, the Kreisi Uplaysi dismisses the entire Chacham Tzvi by simply speaking to scientists at the University of Halle to find out the real function of the heart. With that, he slips every last word of the incredibly erudite rendition of the Chacham Tzvi under the carpet. he just says that all that stuff about the heart was just plain wrong, as proven by William Harvey (who discovered the true function of the heart and circulation in the mid 17th century). I quote the exact sources in my blog, ayen sham.