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Significant Events in Jewish Life


By TorahLab

Most discussions concerning euthanasia focus around the definition of death. At the moment that one is pronounced dead, we are obviously entitled to remove all forms of life support. The definition of death will depend on whether one takes a medical, ethical, moral, spiritual, philosophical, logical or Halachic point of view.
I would like to suggest that the real issue at hand is not the definition of death but the definition of life. Both the secularist and the religionist are really not interested in whether the patient is dead, but rather if he or she should still be considered among the living and entitled to all the rights of the living. For this reason, instead of defining death we will attempt to define life.
It might be easier to define life if we can first explore its purpose. From a secular point of view, human existence at its worst is predicated up hedonistic proclivity and pragmatic utility. At its best, the purpose of life is about service and potential service to ones fellows. In other words, one must be able to either contribute to society or derive pleasure from it. If neither of these two goals can be achieved, what is the purpose of life? If, at the end of life, one is incapable of any personal pleasure or even basic thought, he or she is not only unproductive for society but indeed places a burden on it. If for all intents and purposes life has ended, then this person’s death means no great tragedy or loss. This is a secular view point.
From a spiritual point of view, however, there is another dimension to human existence. We are created and granted the gift of life in order to serve God and to grow. It is a cardinal principle of Judaism that we were put in this world to, among other things, fulfill mitzvos. Let us re-examine the scenario from this perspective. True, our patient has no possibility for pleasure or for contributing to society, but that does not preclude him or her from making a contribution to himself or herself. Repentance, for instance, requires a thought or perhaps a feeling in one’s heart. I know of no experiments that have proven that a person in a comatose situation is incapable of doing teshuva.
Let us examine a historical case. During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Rabbi Chananya ben Tradian was arrested while reading from a Torah scroll to his students. He was placed in the public square, wrapped in the scroll, and burned at the stake. In addition, the murderous barbarians took wet pieces of wool and placed them upon the heart of the great teacher so he would die slowly and painfully. As he was dying, his students were gathered around him, defenselessly. They saw an awesome look come over his face. They asked, “Rebbe, what do you see?” he said he saw the parchment burning but the letters of the Torah were flying into the air. The students, seeing the great suffering of their teacher, begged him to open his mouth and allow the flames to enter into his body so he would die more quickly. The rabbi told his students he would not do such a thing. Let Him who decided to give him life decide when to take it away. The roman executioner, standing by the entire time, was apparently inspired by the exchange. He asked the rabbi, “If I remove the wet sponges from your heart so as to eliminate your suffering, will you bring me to the world to come?” The rabbi said he would. He removed the sponges, the rabbi died, and the roman then committed suicide and jumped into the fire.
There seems to be a contradiction within the story itself. The rabbi was suffering and had an opportunity to terminate his life. He chose not to take his life, but to hold on and trust that God knows what He is doing. Moments later, the Roman offered to expedite his death and the rabbi took him up on it immediately!
The solution I believe is as follows. For the rabbi to open his mouth in a way that would end his life would interfere with God’s decision to prolong his life. However, if the Roman decided that he would expedite the death, this was in fact a decision of God to end the rabbi’s agony.
Furthermore, if a person is about to die, but nearby a woodchopper is causing a rhythm with his wood chopping that prevents the person from dying, can the wood chopper stop chopping and thereby cause the death of his fellow man? The Sefer Chasidim recommends that the wood chopper stop chopping. Although the wood chopper is causing the man to die, he is not killing him but rather removing the factor that is delaying his death.
Similarly, in R’ Chananya’s case. Removing the wet wool was not an n active case of terminating a life but the removal of an obstacle to his death.
This distinction is not to be confused with what is commonly referred to as active and passive euthanasia. It’s very possible that from a legal point of view removing the wood chopper or the slabs of wool is indeed active euthanasia; nevertheless it is permitted in a case of great pain. The Torah’s view in this becomes more liberal than the legal point of view. The case of “pulling the plug”, however, would be more stringent because the heart is working, albeit artificially, and by turning off a respirator one is directly stopping a working heart from working.
Tosafos points out that, although Reb Chananya considered suicide inappropriate, one can terminate his life in a situation where one might be tortured into sinning.
The rationale for this returns us to our original precept. If we argue that the only justification for the continuation of life is that there is still time to grow and to do mitzvos, if prolonging life implies having to sin, then there is no point in suffering. If, as in the case of Reb Chanina, no one is forcing him to sin, the he mustn’t interfere with the divine gift of life because spiritual growth is in fact still possible which makes life valuable.
If a terminally ill person is in pain, and we can hook him up to a machine or administer drugs to prolong his life, what is the Jewish law? It would seem at fist glance that there is no question. The Torah says, “Thou shalt not stand idly on your brothers blood.” We can not stand passively and watch someone else die if we could do something about it.
Rav Moshe Feinstien, however, qualified this law. He taught that one must under all circumstances supply a fellow human being with the staples of life, which are hydration, oxygen, and blood. Depriving someone of these three things when they could be supplied, is criminal under all circumstances. There is no obligation, however, to enable the body to process these three things through artificial or other means. If by doing so, a prolonged state of pain would be cause, then indeed it is forbidden to do so.

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