Ontologies and Epistemologies of Death: Sociological Perspectives on the ethical and the technological aspects of brain-death in Israel

Principal Investigator:  Prof. Shai Lavi

Post-doctorate fellow: Dr. Sky Gross

MA student: Ms. Reem Assadi


This study focuses on the Israeli brain death controversy with the hope of attaining unique insight into the fundamental quandary surrounding the sociocultural and biological dimensions of the definition of death. The Israeli setting is a particularly promising context for this study, not only in terms of the unique constellations of institutional bodies and epistemological worlds involved, but also in terms of the liveliness the subject currently holds, with “real time” controversy and on-going efforts of policy-making. We seek to understand dynamics that involve an intricate set of institutional actors and activists, and gain some insight into the ways these may reveal divergent styles of reasoning, argumentations and axiologies in the gravest –and subtlest- of matters: life and death.


Putting aside the utilitarian overtones of organ donation, the epistemological, technical and conceptual complex of brain-death did not easily fit into the strongly held and defended Jewish definition of death. Traditional Jewish sources stipulate that a person may be presumed dead (or “soulless”, not having a neshama) upon the loss of breath (neshima). Over the years, a cardiac criterion has been grafted onto that tradition, engendering a cardiopulmonary basis for the determination of an individual’s death. Understood literally, these views suggest that brain activity per se plays no role, neither as a technical criterion nor as a concept to be recognized in the consideration of life, and indeed, of death.


Accordingly, some of the most important rabbinical figures entirely rejected the notion of brain-death, openly referring to physicians removing organs from brain-dead individuals as plain “murderers”. Others, including those influential in the state-affiliated Chief Rabbinate, agreed to deliberate with medical authorities and pursued a thorough understanding of the biological and physiological issues. The complex dialectics of the styles of reasoning and modes of argumentations only added to what seemed inherently incommensurable. These, we believe, can only be understood through an attempt to disentangle orthodox religion and advanced science from their assigned monothetic associations with homogeneous sets of epistemologies, methodologies, and regimes of truth.


This research is thus aimed at an appreciation of the contexts in which the definition of death is contested, the claims for “truth” are made, and the boundaries of knowledge are drawn and redrawn by the different actors. We seek to understand the involvement of technology, ideology, religion, and science in the fight over what is real and what should be made real using two basic strategies: (a) a careful gathering and analysis of the texts pertaining to the subject, both in lay and professional press, and (b) interviewing a range of central actors and collect narratives of the development of the controversy as well as current perspectives on the matter as it plays out in “real time”.



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