Monday, March 27, 2006

Review of Where there's Life there's Life

Rabbi David Feldman, who is well known for his book on issues relating to Jewish law and the beginning of life (abortion, birth control etc.), has now published via Yashar Books, a book on end of life issues and Jewish law. This book covers such topics as reproductive technology, stem cells, organ transplants, suicide, and determining death. Although it covers such weighty topics it is a rather easy read. Rabbi Feldman eschews highly technical discussion and instead has opened the book for everyone. Each topic gets about ten pages of treatment and Rabbi Feldman lays out the basic principles underlying each of these issues.

He begins with an extensive introduction on pikuach nefesh which much of the subsequent discussions are premised upon. The book is a little over 130 pages, which means none of the topics are treated in great depth. However, as Rabbi Feldman states in the introduction his purpose was not to provide a comprehensive book on the topic, rather to give some general guidance on this hot button issues. In this area he succeeds. He does provide a very basic introduction to the topics and does provide some of the key sources. Consequently, one who reads this book will have the basics to further investigate these issues.

However, with this approach there are some significant draw backs. Rabbi Feldman, while stating what he feels the commentaries say, does not provide sources for these. He give almost no citations to any source he quotes (there are two exception to this, once he gives a citation to R. Feinstein's responsum and once he gives a cite to a responsum from R. Moshe Sofer). For example, when discussing organ transplants he tells us the key responsum is from R. Yechezkel Landau (Noda Biyehudah) where he holds when the organ donor is "in front of us." That is, on a simple level, one can only do a transplant when one has a ready person to accept the organ. Rabbi Feldman then goes on to discuss others who have applied this statement all without ever providing where R. Landau said it, nor where the subsequent discussion can be found. This seriously hampers any follow up a reader wishes to do or for that matter, to ensure Rabbi Feldman's reading is the correct reading.

To be fair, Rabbi Feldman does offer that is one contacts him via email he will provide citations and additional sources, however, his email doesn't appear anywhere in the book. Assuming these citations were omitted to enable easier reading, why they could not be included on a page or two at the end I do not understand. Instead, we are left to blindly trust Rabbi Feldman in his assessment of the sources.

Further, Rabbi Feldman is far from the first to write on these topics. Instead, a simple search of RAMBI one can see there are numerous articles on all of these topics, none of these are provided. While Rabbi Feldman is not obligated to cite the works of others, it is difficult to understand Rabbi Feldman's claim that "the need to address [these issues] is both urgent and constant," as these very issues have been already comprehensively discussed by many, many others.

Additionally, as I mentioned previously, this book does provide an excellent starting point for these discussions. We are bombarded with many who claim to know what the Bible says for these important topics, but most are blissfully unaware of what the Bible and more specifically Jewish law says and has said about these topics, this cures that. But, it is hard to say it will facilitate further discussion when one doesn't know where to go next.

In the end, this book, in a clear and straightforward manner, if a bit curt, which provides the groundwork for understanding extremely important issues regarding the end of life and new technologies relating that implicate life and death.

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