Expanding the Borders of our lexicon

Rav Shabtai Interview on Nitzotzot by Yehuda Yifrach, Makor Rishon

Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, Head of the Beit Midrash in Bar-Ilan University and a descendant of the Rabbi of Kotzk, believes that love of G-d is strengthened through the study of science and that via research modules, one deepens halachic discussions.

During our interview, we covered subjects such as determining time of death; quantum mechanics and innovative technologies that were unavailable to the halachic decision makers, and the halachic dilemmas that cyborgs [a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts] present.

I began my interview with Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport in his home in Bayit V'gan Jerusalem, with a heretical question. His life's work is synthesizing Torah and Science, an old concept from the days when many young adults where having difficulties reconciling the story of creation in Breishit and Darwin's theory of evolution. The question of whether the world was created in 6 days or developed over millions of years was a question of life and death for many. The answers that they received, or didn’t receive, made the difference between complete faith and utter heresy. Today, in the modern age in which we live, almost no one has their faith in Judaism saved or broken based on those kinds of questions.

This is why I was surprised to discover that Rabbi Rappaport was also not interested in those kinds of questions:

"I think those topics were already rehashed many times over in the 60's and 70's. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was published in the middle of the 19th century, and many theological discussions ensued. People joined or left religious groups for various reasons, and religious conflicts were not always at the top of the list.  If we still want to delineate the discussions of science and Torah, I would divide it into 3 periods. The first deals with discrepancies between biblical descriptions and the scientific version. This was the part of the basis for the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement and biblical criticism. The second started in the 80s with the advent of new technologies. The Torah observant scientists realized that with the progress of technology, they needed to rethink how to synthesize Torah and science in an ever-developing world. We are now in the third period, which focuses on an educational revolution for the in-depth study of halakha.”

Finding order in a casino in Nevada

Rabbi Rappaport started his position as the Head of the Beit Midrash in Bar-Ilan University 8 years ago and started joint projects with different academics until the forming of the Nitzotzot Forum. Until today they have produced 58 conferences. Prior to each one, representatives of the Machon Gavoha L'Torah [The Institute for Advanced Torah Studies] meet with researchers and brainstorm together until they formulate the entire program for the conference. A portion of the projects are in the final stages of being published as a book. Another project he works on is the courses for doctoral students, who develop new tools for Halachic discussions using methodology from their areas of research. Among the filmed classes you can find a presentation of a complicated algorithm that Prof. Moshe Kopel developed in order to analyze passages in the Scriptures as a way of dealing with Biblical criticism; classes on the Torah view on the fight against terrorism; the question of free will in a situation where a person is under duress from the view of Neuroscience; models of Prof Eli Marzbach which deal with the halachic term of "chazaka"; the definition of insanity in psychology and Halacha etc.  In addition, the Institute has developed courses in law and in life sciences. 

Do the models you develop bear any influence when deciding halakhic dilemmas such as determining the time of death, for organ transplantation?

“With the advancement of information analysis, we have a greater understanding of the mechanisms that create order and we can refine the biological and physiological definition of life accordingly. Life, in connection to organisms, is defined today as the body’s way of creating order from disorder. Not only is the order not always visible, sometimes even in a state of entropy and disintegration, one can discover internal order. 

Once I was in a casino in Nevada and I asked myself "the gamblers always lose all their money in the end, therefore, technically all the casinos should close down because in the end none of the gamblers have any money left to gamble. But then you go to the second floor and you see exclusive shops, with outrageously expensive jewelry and watches for sale, and unbelievably, it is the gamblers who are up there purchasing these items. How is this possible?  The casino has a method whereby they have more profits than losses. Sometimes people win, which gives others motivation, and sometimes people who lose a little bit leave before it's too late. This is an example of entropy, of something that is meant to disintegrate. However, upon further in-depth analysis, one reveals order within the disorder.

And here is where we get to the question of determination of life or death. In the 60’s physicians spoke about the reversibility of the comatose state. They said that if the comatose state is irreversible than the person is considered dead. Today, on the other hand, we know that a person can be "conscious" even in a comatose state, similar to sleeping.  When I sleep at night, there is neural activity which influences what I will or will not do afterward, which means that there is order being created. After that, physicians spoke about cardiac activity being the determination of life. However, today we know that the heart is autonomous tissue matter and can even be kept alive, even by itself in a cooler. Additionally, a person can be on a respirator and still be alive. In halakha, breathing is the most important parameter, as it indicates that oxygen molecules are coming into the body. Next, we discovered that children with cerebral palsy, who seemed to have died from being unable to breath on their own, could be saved by modern technology by reviving them via respirator and thereby continuing their brain activity. Due to scientific research, some of those who issue halachic rulings started discussing brain activity and determined the time of death as the moment when the brain stem is ruined beyond repair. This is the stage when there is no more creation of order, but this is not the final stage since, in the future, this order can be achieved again through the transplantation of a silicon chip.”

Determination of life is also a big factor in the abortion dilemma. In the US there is huge conflict between those who are pro-choice and pro-life. This topic isn’t as much in the headlines in Israel but there is still great pressure being placed on the medical ethics committees to allow late term abortions. What is the influence of science on this halakhic discussion?

“In this case, I make use of quantum mechanics. While this is a complex theory, the crux of it is that an object can act both as a wave and a particle, with the object existing somewhere within the statistical probability of both, just like Schrödinger's cat that could be both alive and dead. In the tractate of Yevamot in the Gemara, there is a dilemma of a man who performed chalitza (a ceremony whereby he refuses to marry his deceased brother's childless wife, in order to bring progeny to his brother's name) on a widow who was pregnant at the time and afterward miscarried. This is a disagreement between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, about a man who died, leaving a pregnant widow. The brother of the deceased decided to perform a refusal ceremony and then she miscarried, so the question arises whether she has to undergo another refusal ceremony, since she would normally only be exempt from this ceremony if she had a child. The Amorites [a group of Talmudic commentators from the approx. the 3rd to 5th century B.C.E] opinion is divided. Reish Lakish says that when she was pregnant, she was not even meant to undergo yibum (the ceremony to marry her deceased husband’s brother), and since the chalitza ceremony is only carried out in order to avoid yibum, this first ceremony was invalid and she would need to undergo an additional chalitza ceremony after her miscarriage [since she is once again considered ‘childless’]. Rav Yochanan said that when she miscarried, it was retroactively discovered that she was a candidate for chalitza; therefore, she is not required to undergo another chalitza ceremony. The Achronim [Talmudic commentators from approx. 1500 until the present day] had issues with the words of the Rambam on this topic and offered cryptic modules as an answer. That is why I use quantum mechanics – because while the object (or, in this case, the fetus) was not identifiable at the time, it undeniably existed.

My explanation is that the fetus is in a probable state; he is at once a tissue (that is, considered only as a part of the mother’s body) as well as a separate human being. The dilemma in the western world is whether the fetus is part of the mother or an independent entity. The answer to this is that if we take the future into consideration, the fetus has potential for an independent life, but at present he is a tissue with no validity and with this basis you can understand the disagreement in the Gemara: Rav Yochanan says - let's wait for the future and see, if he dies then retroactively it will be clear that he is just a tissue and if he lives, then it will be clear that he is a living being. Reish Lakish says that at the moment he is both because he is in a probable state; therefore, his mother is at once both required and exempt from undergoing chalitza. Therefore, if she miscarries, she then will be fully required to undergo this ceremony, making the former ceremony done while she was pregnant, invalid. So, what did I do at this point? I brought about a module from quantum mechanics and used it to explain Reish Lakish's stance. In the case of abortion, this helps us to understand the position of the fetus – how on the one hand it is not murder to abort it yet, on the other, it is a living being whom I am required to save.”

How does this model assist a halakhic authority when ruling on an abortion?

“When we look at a fetus during pregnancy as existing in a reality parallel to the “probability continuum” of quantum mechanics, where all possibilities exist and are possible, there is no clear line one can draw on whether it is actually a live human being or just a tissue. The deciding factor comes about during childbirth or during termination of the pregnancy. For example, if we know that a child about to be born will be not be independently viable, this changes the balance of the different positions regarding the fetus. The halachic authority must weigh each situation separately. If halakhically the fetus is, in any given case, still considered to exist primarily as tissue, then rabbi has the option to allow for the termination of the pregnancy. There is still a long way to go before these modules can be used to decide halakha. However, in the meantime, they enhance halakhic discussions and analysis, and lead to a more enriching thought process.”

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