Rabbi Gedaliah Rabinowitz
Interviewer: There are some people who say that the Gemara in Yuma says that the cessation of breathing is death but only because they are assuming that the heart has also stopped beating as well. And therefore, you need the heart to stop beating for you to determine death.
Rabinowitz: I agree with that! I have no reason to disagree with that. Would anybody in his right mind, 100 years ago say otherwise? 1000 years ago? 2000 years ago? You see the heart’s breathing – you would say that the person is dead? Nobody in his right mind would say this. We’re dealing here with a novel situation. Because it’s a novel situation, then we have to go back to the sources and see what are the criteria? The Chatam Sofer says clearly, he gives three criteria for death: no movement in the body, cessation of breath and cessation of heartbeat. He’s 100% right, why would anybody say to the contrary? Now that we have a situation that we can artificially ventilate a person and as a result his heart continues to beat, that’s a totally… that’s a situation and that never existed in the past, it’s not relevant.
Interviewer: Some rabbis that mentioned that they think the reason why the Mishnah Ohalot, which the Rav is focusing heavily on to support brainstem death in the Rambam, some people think that the reason why the Mishna Ohalot says that a person who has his head decapitated is dead is because when you cut off a person’s head, the blood pours out and the heart can’t beat with empty chambers so the heart stops beating, so for them, again, even the Misnha ohalot must by definition include cessation of heartbeat.
Rabinowitz: This opinion that you’ve stated that the reason decapitation is a sign of death is because when you decapitate, the blood has to rush out from the body, is a very interesting theory, but the Rambam says to the contrary.
Interviewer: Is it not possible that maybe the statements in the Gemura and Yuma don’t come from Ma’amad Har Sinai but maybe from Hazal’s own understanding of medicine at the time?
Rabinowitz: I’ll put it this way, I recently wrote an article and it hasn’t been published yet. I wrote an article, on the issue of Hazal’s knowledge of science… they did know science, they didn’t know science… there’s been a big controversy about it in the last few years. I don’t think it’s relevant to our issue that we’re dealing with. If you believe that Hazal knew science, and re-encouraged with the science of today, and I find, at least my understanding of Halacha fits in well with science and I have no problem. If I find that if I some reason believe that Hazal didn’t know science, and science today is more correct than it was in times of Hazal, then again I have to follow science. So in either case, I have no problem with regard to brainstem death. I believe that they did understand it. It’s not a question of whether they understood it or not. They’re conclusions are not, it’s not my job to be a mind reader; it’s my job to try to find out what the Halocha says. If I find that the Halocha is compatible with what science says in today’s world than why even raise issues that are not relevant to this issue. They may be relevant to other questions…