[Avodah] Lecture by Rav Moshe Tendler about Brain Stem

noam stadlan noamstadlan at .gmail.com
Fri Mar 1 09:27:38 PST 2013

On Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 8:49 AM, hankman <hankman at bell.net> wrote:
> I think that taking the gemara that cues in on respiration to
> literally, might not be the intent there. Perhaps the gemara really means
> not the muscular act of respiration but the physiological process of
> respiration, ie, gas exchange that takes place in the lungs, thus the
> diaphragm is not the key to life but the physiology it enables might be.
> Similarly, the concern with circulation is also truly a concern with the
> physiology of gas exchange...

Thanks for the response.

This discussion involves a lot of different issues, including the one
you have identified. In my post I tried to keep with the assumptions of
the positions that I discuss.

In the article I referenced I discussed the major positions of today's
bioethicists- a human being is a thinking person, or a human being
is an organism with integrated function. Under the second construct,
which is what you are suggesting and which is R. Bleich's position,
there is nothing special about neurological function and indeed,
those bioethicists (Truog and Miller) would say that a functioning body
without a head is a human being. In a previous article (available here:
<http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/662/10/>) I pointed out how this
position doesn't explain the halachic positions of why conjoined twins are
two people, and other issues. I would also suggest that as a general rule,
Halacha seems to identify the person with the thinking/speaking part,
not with the 'integrated function' or 'vital motion.' (The part of the
body responsible for performing or violating commandments is the brain)

This leads into the issue of personal identity. When tissue can be
transplanted and machines can take over the function of organs, there
has to be a criteria for why you are you and I am me. This theoretically
can be different than criteria for life and death. However, if the
criteria for identity are different than the ones for life and death,
there is the potential for creating a human being that qualifies as being
an alive human being but is not a particular human being- does not have
an identity, and/or a collection of human tissue that is identified as a
non-dead particular person but does not qualify as an alive human being.
These would be novel halachic categories that require identification
of their rights/obligations. The neurological criteria for death avoids
this problem by making the criteria for identity the same as life/death.

 From a source point of view, the gemara in Yoma 85A
<http://e-daf.com/index.asp?ID=3D1093&size=3D1> brings a proof text 'kol
asher nishmat ruach chayim b'apav'. While there are other interpretations
of why the pasuk is there, the simple understanding is that there is
something special about respiration. I admit that science is so different
now that it is possible to read almost anything into the sources. However,
the concept of autonomous respiration in the context of neurological
function is actually the very best fit with the sources, and fits very
well with current biology and bioethical thinking.

I have written a paper that will be published by the International
Rabbinical Federation later this year that reviews some of this with a
lot more detail of the medical aspects.

Shabbat Shalom

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