Obligated to ‘choose life’

Judaism: a perspective on the end of life

February 26, 2014 | Feature
Alan Green |
Alan Green

To begin with, Judaism teaches that our lives belong to God. We are mere stewards of the body which the Creator has given us. As Jews, we also believe that we are commanded to preserve our lives. Deuteronomy 4:9 teaches that Jews should “carefully preserve yourselves.”

For us, this means we are obligated to take good care of our bodies. This includes not hurting ourselves and certainly not killing ourselves. The great medieval rabbi and physician, Maimonides, wrote: “The rabbis prohibited many things because they were a danger to life. Therefore, one who says, ‘I will endanger myself, and it’s of no business of yours,’ is to be whipped.”

At the same time that we are commanded to preserve our own lives, we are also commanded to save the lives of others. The Talmud refers to the teaching in Leviticus 19:16, saying, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.” It goes on to say that the commandment to return lost property (Deuteronomy 22:1) also applies to the effort to restore lost health; if needed, we must engage with others to save them from danger.

Although there’s no obligation to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of another in Judaism, self-endangerment to save another life is permitted. Thus it’s permissible—and perhaps even required—to place oneself at risk in order to save a life.

So what does Jewish law say about the situation of seriously ill patients who decide, with a doctor’s assistance, to end their lives?

Judaism is a religion which unabashedly promotes life. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 declares: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God; by obeying his voice; and by holding fast to him; for this is your life, and the length of your days.”

Based on my understanding of this text, and Jewish tradition as a whole, I interpret this to mean that a human being is obligated to “choose life,” even in the face of severe illness and impending death. Therefore, in the Jewish system, physician-assisted suicide would be unacceptable under any imaginable circumstance.

With regard to the end of life, there is a wide array of opinions in Judaism, rang-ing from very conservative to very liberal. The conservative approach dictates that every possible medical intervention should be employed to preserve a life as long as possible. The liberal approach advocates withdrawal even of intravenous food and water from a comatose patient with no prospect of recovery, together with intravenous drugs, artificial respiration and dialysis. And there are many opinions which fall between these two extremes.

But I think that Judaism makes itself very clear: In some way, shape or form, we are always obligated to choose life. Therefore, for Jews, the prospect of physician-assisted suicide—in which, by common agreement, a doctor would actively aid someone in ending his/her life—is completely outside the religious universe of discourse.

Alan Green is senior rabbi at Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek synagogue.

This article is part of a six-part feature on end-of-life issues. See also:

Other faiths speak out on end-of-life issues (introduction)

Applying ancient wisdom to the here and now (Buddhism)

Only God can determine the time and place of death (Islam)

God gives life, nobody should try to take it away (Hinduism)

‘Right to life does not include the right to be killed’ (Evangelical Christian Fellowship)

For discussion: Other faiths speak out on end-of-life issues

—Posted Feb. 26, 2014

Alan Green

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