Time to Revitalize Judaism: A Respectful Challenge to the Jewish Establishment

By Prof. Richard H. Schwartz

As author of Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, I was immediately intrigued by the title of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s new book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. The idea that Jews should not blindly accept the status quo, but should use Jewish law as a source for rebelling against complacency, denial, injustice, oppression and more, with the courage to apply Jewish teachings to help promote a better world, excited me. [Read more…]

Perelman Teachers Have the Right to Organize: Interview

Jill Jacobs6

Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Photo: T’ruah.

Starting September 1, the Perelman Jewish Day School has ceased to recognize its teachers union.

Following the Perelman board’s announcement, The Perelman Teacher-Alumni-Parent Partnership sponsored a presentation in Bryn Mawr, “Work & Workers in Jewish Law: A Community Teach-In,” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

Jacobs is the founding executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of American Jews to protect human rights in North America and Israel. The author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition, she is widely regarded as a leading voice on Jewish social justice.

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice caught up with Rabbi Jacobs for an interview soon after her presentation.

[Read more…]

Words Can Kill!

Hearts have their own natural biological pacemaker that allows them to beat on their own accord even when the brain dies.

— Robby Berman

People don’t like to talk about death. But I can’t help it. It’s my job. I encourage Jews to donate organs upon death to the general public. It is a difficult profession and journalists are constantly making my job even tougher. Recently a four-month-old Israeli baby boy died. Some Israeli media reported he died on Friday while others reported he died on Sunday. Why were they confused? Because his brain died on Friday and his heart died on Sunday.

More after the jump.

Hearts, yours and mine, have their own natural biological pacemaker that allows them to beat on their own accord even when the brain dies. (Go to YouTube and type in the words “dead frog beating heart” and see for yourself.) The heart is not connected to the brain in any meaningful way, and as long as it is artificially receiving oxygen from a ventilator it can take a licking and keep on ticking for a few more days before it, too, dies.

So which is it? Did the baby die on Friday, when his brain died, or did he die on Sunday, when his heart died? The Israeli Medical Association, Israeli legislation, the Ministry of Health, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Medical Association of almost every country in the world all understand that when a person’s brain dies death has occurred. In other words the organism is dead but its organs can remain alive for a few more days.

Why? Because they are artificially — and incidentally — being given oxygen by a ventilator.

Well, if it is resoundingly clear that brain death is death then why did some Israeli media organs get it wrong? Why did IBA English TV News and The Jerusalem Post, among others, report the baby had died on Sunday when his heart stopped beating? Why didn’t they say he died on Friday when his brain died? The answer is not a good one. It is because it would have felt weird to say on Friday that a baby that is warm to the touch — whose heart is still beating — is dead, and it would have felt weird to say on Sunday that a dead baby had been lying in the hospital with a beating heart for two days.

Not only is describing the functional reality of brain death difficult to put into words, it’s hard to decide how to refer to the baby himself. What do you call him? If you accept brain death as death, should the baby be called a braindead patient? The word “patient” implies he is alive. Should he be called a brain-dead corpse? If he is a corpse, why is he being kept in a hospital bed attached to a ventilator? And if he is dead, why are we calling him brain dead? He should just be referred to as dead. He should be called the deceased, not the brain-dead deceased.

This is not simply an exercise in semantics. This is an important issue that all responsible citizens have to wrap their heads around.

The words chosen by family members, doctors and journalists can lead to life or death decisions.

Israel has one of the lowest organ donor registration rates in the world. So the words chosen by the chosen people will have an impact on how family members and the public perceive a brain-dead corpse (hear how weird this term sounds?).

Is he a living patient or is he a corpse whose heart doesn’t know enough to stop beating because it has an artificial supply of oxygen? Your answer will influence your decision whether or not to donate organs. If he is alive, then understandably you will not donate his organs. But if he is dead, you will consider it. And since one organ donor can save eight lives the stakes are high – especially if you are one of the 100 Israelis that will die this year waiting for an organ that will not be donated.

Another dangerously inaccurate and misleading term that is the darling of doctors and journalists is “life support.” Sometimes a living patient needs help to breathe and so he is put on a ventilator. His life is indeed being supported by the ventilator. But if a brain-dead corpse (whose heart is still beating) is on a vent, his life is not being supported because he is already dead. And to say he is “on life support” implies he is alive, again inhibiting donation of his organs.

If I am being asked to remove life support I am killing my loved one.

It would be just as inappropriate to use this term if I were to attach a football to a ventilator (which could easily be done) and see it reported in The Jerusalem Post that I put a football on a life-support machine. The ventilator simply vents air in and out of the thing it is attached to. A vent is a vent is a vent and nothing more. The word ventilator is accurate as it is neutral and should always be used.

Israeli medical and Israeli media professionals have an obligation to the public to use exact terms and to be consistent in their reporting. If a health reporter insists that the baby died on Sunday when his heart stopped beating then she should also, for the sake of consistency, report that doctors are murdering patients every time they remove organs from a brain-dead donor because the heart is still beating.

Consistency is the bedrock of clarity and currently Israeli medical reporting is rolling around on shifting sands. An Israeli journalist who reports that a brain-dead baby died upon cessation of heartbeat contradicts the understanding of the medical community in practically every country in the world, as well as contradicting the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Knesset of Israel and the Ministry of Health of Israel. A journalist who uses the term “life-support,” when she should have written ventilator, contributes to people’s decisions not to donate organs resulting in the needless deaths of more than 100 Israelis every year. Choosing our words carefully is good advice for conversation as well as for journalism.

The writer has an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a freelance writer and the founder and director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society.

Judaism 101 for ME


Medical Examiners (ME's) and Coroners are charged by the state to determine cause of death. In the case of an accident, sudden death, homicide or suicide, the resulting investigation can lead to conflict between secular practice and Jewish law (halacha) or tradition (minhag).

In order to help Medical Examiners navigate these issues and sensitize them to the concerns of Jewish mourners, Dr. Norman Goodman, Jeffrey Goodman, Esq. and Walter I. Hofman, M.D. have published a primer on Jewish practices Autopsy: Traditional Jewish Law and Customs “Halacha” in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Norman Goodman is the former Chester County Chief Deputy Coroner and Walter Hofman is the Montgomery County Coroner so they both have a great deal of experience in this domain.

Chester County Chief Deputy Coroner Dr. Norman Goodman
Traditional Jewish law encourages a speedy burial and respect for the corpse, keeping it intact and covered while while members of the Jewish burial society respectfully prepare and sit with it to ensure respectful treatment in honor of the deceased. There are important exceptions. For example,

  • “burial can be delayed for the sake of honoring the dead, to procure a coffin [by tradition a simple pine box], … or to await” the speaker who will deliver the eulogy,
  • burial can be delayed to identify the deceased,
  • autopsy are allowed if this may save a life, for example to discover death related to a genetic condition.

The authors review how deaths are investigated in the modern State of Israel and give advisory guidelines for autopsies of observant Jews in the United States.


In many cases, new technologies allow the Medical Examiner to obtain the necessary information through minimally invasive procedures.

  • Virtospy: Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans now allow coroners to study a detailed 3-dimensional computer model of the decedant.
  • Laparoscopy and Thoracoscopy allow the coroner to examine internal organs through small openings in the body.

For specific situations in your personal life, be sure to consult your rabbi for directly pertinent information and assistance that can be brought to bear through rabbinic training, authority and relations with local law enforcement officials.