One overarching principle in Judaism is to preserve life. We learn from the opening verses in Torah not only that a human life is fashioned by God b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image — a sacred expression of divine creation — but also that God breathes into us the breath of life as we come to be. Aligned with such an understanding is a further injunction in Torah that says that the commandments were given to us so that we “may live by them.” [Lev. 18:5] In other words, our actions and practices are to be in the service of life, of preserving and enhancing life above all else. Doesn’t the Talmud even say: “whomever saves one life, saves the whole world”? [Sanh. 37a] From these verses we glean that matters of life and death are understood by Jewish tradition to be best left to the care of God, and that any human intervention must be in the service of protecting life. Informed by these teachings, the majority of Jewish religious denominations have all opposed Death with Dignity on the basis that Jewish law prohibits suicide, euthanasia and assisted suicide.
But, as is often the case in Judaism, rules come with their exceptions. There are biblical and historical precedents, addendums to Jewish law, promoting dying with dignity. In the Jewish Bible, King Saul, the first king of Israel, hastens his own death through committing suicide after being mortally wounded in battle. In extreme situations such as pogroms or forced conversion, Jewish law holds suicide and assisted suicide not just as acceptable but as kiddush haShem, sanctifying God’s name. It also mandates suicide if one is forced into violating any of the three cardinal prohibitions of idolatry, murder and sexual depravity.
In certain cases, the law also permits ending life-sustaining interventions or treatments. An instructive story is relayed about the great sage, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi (2nd century CE) as he lay dying. As his disciples weren’t ready to let him pass on, they raised a wall of uninterrupted prayers between him and Death so that his soul could not be taken. But Rabbi Yehudah’s maid saw the physical agony her master was experiencing in his protracted dying process. She climbed upon the roof of the house and, from there, threw a jar that shattered loudly. Startled, the rabbis interrupted their continuous praying and, in that moment, Rabbi Yehudah’s soul departed. It is said that the maid was rewarded in the World to Come. This oft-quoted story shows that Jewish law not only demands compassion for the suffering of a dying patient but opposes the unnecessary pain of a prolonged dying process.
There is another famous story that raises more questions than it provides answers. Rabbi Yosse ben Halafta (also 2nd century CE) was once visited by a very old woman who complained to him that life had become too bitter to live, that she could no longer find pleasure in it and that she wanted to die. Rabbi Yosse asked her to what she attributed her longevity. She replied that she had never missed a prayer service at her local synagogue. The rabbi proceeded to tell her to keep from attending services for the next three days. Following his advice, she became ill and died on the third day. Though it wasn’t suicide — since she died of illness — didn’t Rabbi Yosse “prescribe” a way to hasten her own death? Should we expand our definition of suffering to include non-physical pain? Is context an important factor to consider in interpreting the law? Clearly, the conversation continues.
Though most Jewish denominations oppose physician-assisted suicide, those outside the Orthodox movement leave it to the discretion of individual rabbis to interpret Jewish law when faced with the specific circumstances of their ministry. Most progressive and non-denominational Jewish organizations endorse Death with Dignity laws, oftentimes quoting the same sources in support of their decision. And so continue to evolve Jewish tradition in every generation.
Death with Dignity special report:
PART ONE: Robert Fuller planned every detail of his wedding — and his death soon after
PART TWO: Learning how to die
PART THREE: Solace in a trying time
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
Read the full June 5 - 11 issue.
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