Is brain death enough? RCA says maybe


After a lengthy debate, the Rabbinical Council of America has come out with its position regarding organ donation and brain death: it doesn’t have one, but everyone else does.

Whether brain death is dead enough to halachically allow organ donation is a highly contentious topic. One view is that brain death, when the brain stem can no longer control the lungs or the diaphragm, is death and organs can be used for transplants. The stricter, or more machmir, opinion, believes that death only occurs when there is cardiorespiratory failure and the heart stops pumping blood. The two opinions decide whether Orthodox Jews can donate their organs in the case of brain death.

The RCA, in their release on Jan. 7, noted both sides.

“It is true that many halachic authorities of our day, including Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Mordechai Willig, Rav J. David Bleich and others maintain that brain stem death does not satisfy the halachic criteria for the determination of death,” said the RCA statement. “It is also true, however, that many other halachic authorities, including Rav Gedalia Schwartz, Rav Moshe Tendler, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel maintain that brain stem death does qualify for the determination of death in Jewish law.”

RCA’s statement or non-statement was sparked by the New York Jewish Week’s discovery of a 110-page report issued by the RCA’s Vaad Halacha about brain death. The study, authored by Rabbi Asher Bush, Rabbi Kenneth Auman and Rabbi Tzvi Flaum, was intended only for internal purposes. It leaned heavily towards the stricter opinion, according to several rabbis who read the study. The publication engendered strong criticism of the organization, especially from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, the son-in-law of Rav Moshe Feinstein and the most prominent proponent of the view that brain death is halachically considered death.

“The report was written with an agenda…” Rabbi Tendler told The Jewish Week. “[To] push the point that brain death is not acceptable, despite the fact that the Chief Rabbinate [in Israel] approved it and Reb Moshe [Feinstein] approved it.”

He said that the stricter opinion “defames Judaism and exposes every Jew to the hatred of non-Jews.”

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