Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 58, Issue 5, pp 1672–1686 | Cite as

Go in Peace: Brain Death, Reasonable Accommodation and Jewish Mourning Rituals

  • Ezra GabbayEmail author
  • Joseph J. Fins
Philosophical Exploration


Religious objections to brain death are common among Orthodox Jews. These objections often lead to conflicts between families of patients who are diagnosed with brain death, and physicians and hospitals. Israel, New York and New Jersey (among other jurisdictions) include accommodation clauses in their regulations or laws regarding the determination of death by brain-death criteria. The purpose of these clauses is to allow families an opportunity to oppose or even veto (in the case of Israel and New Jersey) determinations of brain death. In New York, the extent and duration of this accommodation period are generally left to the discretion of individual institutions. Jewish tradition has embraced cultural and psychological mechanisms to help families cope with death and loss through a structured process that includes quick separation from the physical body of the dead and a gradual transition through phases of mourning (Aninut,Kriah, timely burial, Shiva, Shloshim, first year of mourning). This process is meant to help achieve closure, acceptance, support for the bereaved, commemoration, faith in the afterlife and affirmation of life for the survivors. We argue that the open-ended period of contention of brain death under the reasonable accommodation laws may undermine the deep psychological wisdom that informs the Jewish tradition. By promoting dispute and conflict, the process of inevitable separation and acceptance is delayed and the comforting rituals of mourning are deferred at the expense of the bereft family. Solutions to this problem may include separating discussions of organ donation from those concerning the diagnosis of brain death per se, allowing a period of no escalation of life-sustaining interventions rather than unilateral withdrawal of mechanical ventilation, engagement of rabbinical leaders in individual cases and policy formulations that prioritize emotional support for families.


Brain death Judaism Mourning Reasonable accommodation 



We would like to thank Dr. Arthur T. Evans for his ongoing support of our collaborative work. Parts of this work were presented as oral presentations in the 2018 UNESCO Chair of Bioethics Conference in Jerusalem, Israel, and the 2018 American Society of Bioethics and Humanities Annual Meeting in Anaheim, CA.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hospital Medicine Section, Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of MedicineWeill-Cornell MedicineNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Division of Medical Ethics, Department of MedicineWeill-Cornell MedicineNew YorkUSA

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