Really Dead? traces the multi-cultural discourse on the meaning of death in Israeli society over a critical twenty-year period—from the start of heart transplantation in 1967 until the establishment of the first Israeli heart-transplant program in 1987. Israeli doctors, politicians, lawyers and rabbis all debated the ethical challenges presented by the transplantation project. Careful reading of what they had to say makes clear that they (like others elsewhere) had to grapple with what death meant in an age of usable living organs found in dead bodies. They all asked what it meant to be really dead.
However, unique among parallel debates which took place in other Western countries was the important role that Jewish law played in the Israeli discourse surrounding brain-death. Robust rabbinic conceptions of the real had to negotiate new scientifically-based categorizations of life and death. Israel’s medical elite, seeking to join the rest of the West’s organ transplant project, needed to explain its own conception of death in terms that made sense to a religiously conservative populace. After several false starts, the Health Ministry, together with Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, turned to the Rabbinate seeking their support for the establishment of a proposed heart-transplant unit. The result was a most unusual document: the Israel Chief Rabbinate Decision on Heart Transplants (1986). This Jewish legal decision serves as my study’s anchor. In addition to closely reading this unique medical-halakhic ruling, I present its back story through careful readings and thick descriptions of a wide variety of primary source material that preceded the Chief Rabbinate’s statement. From halakhic decisions to Knesset debates to court cases to medical journal articles, I peel back layer upon layer of the documents which made up the Israeli discourse on brain-death for this period. By doing so, I am able to expose the conceptual dissonance over the meaning of death which in the end prevented successful cooperation between Israel’s scientifically-oriented medical elites and its rabbinic establishment—despite their mutual interest in saving lives through organ transplants.