The Breath of the Spirit of Life

I have very much been enjoying Charles C. Camosy’s new book, Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality.

Camosy begins with sketching the anthropological views undergirding our contemporary secular bioethics and then proceeds to explore recent cases, particularly at the beginning and end of life, where human equality has been questioned or undermined.

In a fascinating chapter on brain death, I was interested to learn about how Jews have succeeded in challenging the notion that brain death constitutes the death of the person.

Camosy writes:

New Jersey, not least due to effective lobbying from religious groups (especially Orthodox Jews) who insisted that their particular vision of the good be respected in medical practice, forbids insurance providers from denying medical coverage because of “personal religious beliefs regarding the application of neurological criteria for declaring death.”

As is often the case, there are (at least two) divergent traditional rabbinic opinions on what constitutes death. The first opinion. As discussed in this article, the first opinion is that death is “the irreversible and complete cessation of all vital bodily motion (including heartbeat)” and the second opinion is that death is determined by “the irreversible cessation of breathing.”

The latter position is said to derive from rabbinic commentary on Genesis:

The traditional codifiers of Jewish law all rule that the primary test in determining whether a person is alive or dead is of the nose. The verse that the Talmud quotes to support this requirement is, “All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life” (Genesis 7:22), which implies that the “breath of the spirit of life” is what defines life.

Now, it is widely presumed in our secular, contemporary culture that brain death is the death of the person. Yet, there are good reasons to question this.

Reducing the human person to any individual capacity risks excluding some vulnerable persons from the human family.

The human person is an inexhaustible mystery and reverence is demanded before so great a mystery in order to grasp the significance of “the breath of life.”

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