Friday, April 4, 2008

Brain death & the intermarriage-conversion problem

I have been posting almost exclusively about conversion and the intermarriage problem. Today's posting about brain death is a change - but I want to use it to illustrate a problem in the halachic process that is relevant to intermarriage and conversion. What follows is not meant as an authoritative exposition of brain death.

As many of you know there is a major fight over the definition of death in Israel due to a law regarding organ transplants. To transplant organs the donor needs to be dead - but not so dead that the organs have deteriorated. Thus it is critical to know precisely when the donor is dead enough to donate but alive enough so that his organs are useful.

There are two basic approaches - 1) as long as the heart is beating the person is alive 2) as long as the person is breathing the person is alive

The second apporach has been complicated by brain death. There are basically two types of brain death. One is the person is unconscious and is unaware of his surroundings and will never recover consciousness. This can happen because of stroke or injury which destroys those parts of the brain dealing with awareness. A person can live for years in this vegatative state with both the heart and the breathing working. Halachically he is not dead. A problem arises however if the brainstem which controls breathing is damaged and therefore the person lacks the brain mechanism for spontaneous independent breathing. Or alternatively the brain flow to the brain as a whole is stopped and he is effectively decapitated.

In the above cases is he halachically dead?

Those who insist that cessation of blood flow to the brain means the person is dead - need to show that there is no flow. One of the standard non-invasive tests is the Doppler Test which uses ultrasound to test for blood flow. Another is the PET. While this sounds very scientific - the question is how accurate is the test? A recent item about a man declared dead and his organs assigned to others - was discovered to be fully alive - despite a PET test which showed there was no blood flow to the brain. Findings for the Doppler test typically indicate a 10% report that there is no blood flow when in fact there is. One study found a 25% error rate.

Thus we have four questions: 1) how is death defined - breathing or heart 2) what is the procedure that a doctor uses to ascertain the facts related to the halachic definition. 3) how accurate are these tests and procedures and 4) what percentage of people being falsely declared dead do we accept?

An illustration of these problems can be found on the following site which is devoted to halachically correct organ donations. Look at the video of the interview with Rav Dovid Feinstein It is clear that the poskim make rulings based upon the technical information they receive from others. To what degree is this information accurate?

In one of Rav Moshe Feinstein teshuvos regarding brain death, he states, "if it is true that there is a test which indicates that the blood flow to the brain has stopped then the person is dead." The problem is that the test mentioned - radiographic test - is generally not used and if it were used it might actually cause the death of the person be examined.

Another related problem is the awareness of the range of legitimate views.
In the case of brain death, the current campaign assumes that there is only one correct view - when in fact there are poskim on both sides.

To get back to the issue of conversion and intermarrige. There is a similar problem of whether the poskim are fully aware of also the range of legitimate halachic views. For example at the November EJF conference one of the horror stories used to illustrate the need for EJF setting the standards is that in the immersion of one ger - the rabbi did not inform her not to wear contact lenses. The conclusion was that the conversion was invalid. Bizarrely enough for an organization which is supposed to follow the rulings of R' Moshe Feinstein and is headed by his son R' Reuven Feinstein - no one mentioned that Rav Moshe does not regard contact lenses as invalidating the immersion. Obviously though it should be removed lechatchila. When one of rabbis of the organization was asked about this he acknowledged he wasn't aware of Rav Moshe's psak!

I have still not gotten confirmation that Rav Eliashiv approves of the proselytizing that EJF does. There is no confirmation from Rav Reuven Feinstein that his father approved the program of EJF.

The Achiezer withdrew his approval of conversion of itnermarriage, 22 years after he had approved by noting it just doesn't work. Rav Moshe Feinstein also refused to convert intermarried couples - even though he acknowledged that theoretically it was valid. He just noted the failure rate is so high he didn't want to be part of the enterprise.

There is concern with 1) what EJF and other kiruv organizations are doing 2) to what degree are the poskim they claim to rely on fully aware of what these organizations are doing

In the absence of clear documentation and open discussion about the consequences of these programs - there is clearly what to be concerned with.

1 comment :

  1. Each of the Orthodox Rabbis who have done conversions to permit intermarriages think that it has been only the "two dozen" or a that they have personally done.

    What American Orthodox Rabbis do not realize is that most of the 1000 members of the RCA have each done on average a "few" or a "few dozen" conversions to permit intermarriages.

    And we can add to that the people who now live in Orthodox communities who are the offspring of women who had Conservative, Reform or no conversions and who became "Baalei Teshuva".

    The intermarriage problem in the US has been going on since WWII when many Jewish servicemen brought home Gentile wives from overseas. And now it has been three generations of "blending" into the American Jewish community.

    All of the sudden we find that in some shuls or schools as many as half of the children are not considered Jewish in Israel.

    Then we add to this the general idea among even the Orthodox, and one need only to read Vos iz Neias or the Yeshiva World to see this, of accepting people as Jewish because they claim they are "anusim" or that they have been "converted" even though they are not recognized as Jews in Israel.

    Without realizing it, we have many Orthodox shuls and yeshivas in the US whose memberships are by percentage, significantly not Jewish. This is true unfortunately in Lakewood, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and even in Brooklyn.


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