On death and dying: Do Jews have a choice?

On death and dying: Do Jews have a choice?

There is an old saying, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Though loathe to get into discussion of the latter, said founding father was obviously correct about the former. At some point, all of us will face an end-of-life situation, and for those of us in New Jersey, the state might soon give us some degree of control over when and how we choose to die.   

I refer to the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which is currently pending in the New Jersey state legislature. This legislation would allow physicians to provide life-ending medication to mentally competent patients who are at least 18 and have a terminal illness with a prognosis of, at most, six months to live. The patients must be able to self-administer the medication. Similar measures have passed in California, Montana, Vermont, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington State, and Washington, D.C. — all modeled on Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act enacted in 1997, the first of its kind.

“This option has brought sound public policy and improvements in end-of-life care to the states where it is permitted medical practice, and the time is now to bring the same quality of care to the people of New Jersey,” said Corinne Carey, N.J. campaign director of Compassion and Choices of New Jersey, Inc., the nonprofit, educational organization leading advocacy efforts. Sixty-three percent of the state’s residents support the measure, according to Carey. 

I wondered whether there was a Jewish approach to what is sometimes referred to as physician-aided suicide. Not surprisingly, it depends on whom you ask.

I spoke with David Glicksman, an Orthodox rabbi with long-time pulpit and chaplaincy experience who currently serves on the Joint Chaplaincy Commission of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. While he empathizes with the suffering of families, Glicksman said that because halacha (Jewish law) — which sees human life as sacred, clearly forbids suicide or assisting in suicide— he would oppose the pending legislation. 

That said, “passive euthanasia,” the withholding of life-extending measures, as opposed to taking affirmative steps to end a life, is not necessarily a halachic violation. For example, he said, while actively removing a feeding tube or respirator would be unacceptable, one might not be required to replace a tube once it is removed. 

But “if a patient asked me whether Jewish law permitted him or her to intentionally starve to death to end their suffering, I would have to answer in the negative.” Still, Glicksman said, he would “without judgment…comfort that patient as part of my pastoral responsibilities.”

On the other hand, Richard Address, a Reform rabbi and the director of Sacred Jewish Aging — a forum that promotes discussion about the revolution in longevity for baby boomers and their families — supports the legislation. “As a non-Orthodox rabbi, I view halacha as an evolutionary process, not rooted in an act of divine revelation,” he said. “Its genius is that it is a product of the social, political, economic, and religious context of the day.” 

Address understands the portion of the verse in Deuteronomy 30:19 which states, “You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live,” to mean that “the ultimate decision of when to end life rests with me.” This is not a spur-of-the-moment decision, he said. “It’s a product of a lifetime and is driven by three factors: autonomy, the relationship with self; the impact of life-extending medical technology on quality of life; and one’s own spiritual beliefs.”  

I speculated, and Address agreed, that it’s the baby boomer generation driving the momentum behind more liberal aid-in-dying laws. This is the generation that brought American society the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. Now that our parents’ generation is rapidly passing into history, we boomers have reached the ‘on deck’ circle and we’re aiming to change the culture on death and dying. 

Rabbi Marc Kline of Monmouth Reform Temple — citing the 14th-century Catalonian Talmud scholar Rabbeinu Nissim, and Jewish bioethicist J. David Bleich — said, like Glicksman, that Jewish law prohibits taking active steps to hasten death. But their teachings, Kline said, support the option of praying for death as relief from an unbearable situation.

Stephanie Dickstein, speaking from experience — the Highland Park resident and Conservative rabbi works with older adults and end-of-life and bereavement issues — said, “It is not routine for families to be given emotional or practical preparation for the realities of caring for a loved one whose illness is reaching a terminal stage far enough in advance.” She does not believe the only choice is either using medical technology to extend life at all costs or allowing doctors to end life. “We can have policies and practices which make it the norm to support quality of life and comfort in the final chapter of life, rather than actively involving physicians in prescribing substances to end life.”  

I also spoke with Jeff Feldman, advocacy coordinator of the North Brunswick-based New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. His organization endorses the legislation, he told me, because “as a profession, social workers believe strongly in the value of self-determination for our clients. An individual with a terminal illness should be able to choose the time and method of their passing, rather than being placed at the mercy of their illness.” Social workers, he explained, often are the professionals with clients and their families during emotional end-of-life situations. “Hospice and palliative-care social workers…are called upon to non-judgmentally lay out for the client all of the available options,” and from his perspective, the more options available to the client, the better.

Just where do I stand? I’m with Address and the social workers in support of the pending legislation. Obviously, I agree with Dickstein that we should have a more effective palliative care system. But at the same time, not seeing myself as bound by a strict interpretation of halacha, I want a greater variety of end-of-life choices. That’s on a personal level. 

On a societal level, I don’t think those whose religious or ethical beliefs regard the ending of life as immoral regardless of the circumstances should dictate our public policy.   

No one likes to have these discussions, but, inevitably, such difficult medical and ethical decisions still have to be made. Whether you support or oppose this legislation, we all would be well served to thoroughly explore these issues not only with our loved ones, but in appropriate communal forums, as well.

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