Moshe Tendler to address brain-stem death
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Moshe Tendler to address brain-stem death

“May God grant us the wisdom to determine His will in this frighteningly important area of Jewish law,” concludes a statement on the website of the Rabbinical Council of America. The issue under discussion is “Brain Stem Death and Jewish Law,” and the Jan. 7, 2011, statement was meant to serve as clarification of a more than 100-page controversial document on that topic released by the RCA’s Vaad Halacha (Council on Jewish Law) in 2010.

“The RCA showed nerve and verve on this issue and now they are wavering and recanting,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the recent RCA document, which articulated the opposition of some rabbis to using brain- stem death as a criterion for death. This has stirred great controversy in the ranks of the RCA, as well as in the greater Jewish community. The issue is compelling; in fact it is a matter of life and death, since those who have been declared dead by the criteria of brain-stem death can serve as organ donors, enabling the saving of many lives.

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Rabbi Moshe Tendler courtesy Yeshiva University

Zierler, who is rabbi at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, is deeply interested in this issue, in part because of his studies in bioethics at Case Western Reserve and a practicum he completed at University Hospital in Cleveland and the Cleveland Clinic. “I sat as an observer on the liver transplant team and had the opportunity to hear how pressing this whole issue is,” he said. Zierler, rabbinic consultant to the Hospice of New Jersey, serves on the ethics committee of Holy Name Hospital. “I know as a hospital chaplain that a brain-dead person is difficult to acknowledge. It’s very weighty, but there are ways to ascertain that a person is brain dead.”

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler will address these issues at the JCT on Monday, May 16. “He’s my rebbe and my mentor in bioethics,” said Zierler of Tendler. Chair of the department of biology at Yeshiva University and rabbi of the Community Synagogue of Monsey, Tendler will lecture on “The Interface of Science and Halacha (Jewish Law),” with a focus on brain death as the determining factor in establishing death.

“I’m a devotee of Rabbi Tendler. This is a man with tremendous practical sensibilities, who makes difficult decisions in the trenches,” said Zierler. “Through Rabbi Tendler I have come to understand … that the power of permissibility is preferable.”

The Jewish Standard spoke by phone with Rabbi Tendler on the topic of Jewish law and brain-stem death.

J.S.: The RCA, which claims a membership of close to 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in 14 countries, represents differing views on the issue. Can you explain the controversy?

M.T.: For more than 30 years the RCA sent out health-care proxies recommending organ donations after brain death. Then they came out with a more than 100-page report that raised questions that were devastating, suggesting that brain death is not final and that some recover after brain death.

J.S.: Your late father-in-law, the renowned rabbinic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as well as the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, had come out in support of brain-stem death as a criterion for death. What led to this change of heart by the RCA?

M.T.: The Rabbanus Harashis [Chief Rabbinate of Israel] supported brain stem death as the only irrefutable indication of death. This was followed until two years ago, when under pressure of [Rabbi J. David] Bleich and [Rabbi Mordechai] Willig in the RCA, they tried to reverse it. They didn’t have the slightest idea of what brain-stem death means. There were attempts to obfuscate Rabbi Feinstein’s position. Rabbi Willig said that polio patients who were paralyzed and can’t breathe were brain-stem dead according to Rabbi Feinstein. He published that kind of nonsense. How could they make such errors? These are issues that touch upon intellectual integrity. The 100-page document is not a p’sak [rabbinic ruling], it’s just information.

J.S.: The document suggests that although they do not subscribe to the notion that brain stem death is death, they believe that it is permissible to get an organ from a non-Jew who is brain-stem dead.

M.T.: That’s already a blood libel. It [encourages] anti-Semitic reactions – “I am a non-Jew. Do you mean you can take my organs even though I am still alive?”

J.S.: The rabbis who oppose these principles are colleagues of yours at Yeshiva University. Those are strong criticisms of your colleagues. Is that a problem for you?

M.T.: They are colleagues… who are ignorant or are biased and allow themselves to say things without careful investigation. I’ve been criticized for using strong words. When dealing with pikuakh nefesh [saving lives], there is nothing wrong with using strong words if you think it will accomplish saving a life.

Lecture
What: Lecture by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler on “The Interface of Science and Halacha (Jewish Law)” as part of the Seventy Sterling Community Lecture Series

Where: The Jewish Center of Teaneck

When: Monday, May 16, 8 p.m.

Cost: Free and open to the public.

Information: (201) 833-0515

J.S.: What is the status of the issue now?

M.T.: It’s back to where it was. The RCA retirees in Eretz Yisrael [Israel], and senior rabbanim [rabbis] in the RCA, want to make clear that they didn’t rule against brain death. They simply wanted to provide information for people to think about the topic. The overwhelming response of the RCA membership – hundreds of members – [was a reaction] against this document.

J.S.: What is the situation in Israel? The hospitals there are known to have sophisticated and highly successful organ transplant units.

M.T.: In Israel the Zionist Rabbanim support brain-stem death. The lungs and heart can only be taken from brain-stem dead people. Hadassah [Medical Center in Jerusalem] is known for heart transplantation, and Rambam Hospital [in Haifa] specializes in lung transplants. They have very successful innovations. In the U.S., if a hospital does not do at least nine transplants per month, the mortality rates go up. In Israel they don’t do nine transplants per year and their mortality rate is just as good.

J.S.: Are there any disadvantages to being Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s son-in-law?

M.T.: They expect me to defend all his responsa. I only agreed to marry his daughter, but not to defend all his responsa, although he had a wonderful track record and was almost never wrong. He did his homework.

J.S.: Do you have any other comments for our readers?

M.T.: [I will be pleased to] have someone in the audience present the opposing view. It will permit me to clarify the issue. Generally the audience always contains someone who is committed to a position that interferes with intellectual integrity.

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