This November, Initiative Measure 1000 will appear on the ballot in Washington State. “This measure would permit terminally ill, competent, adult Washington residents, who are medically predicted to have six months or less to live, to request and self-administer lethal medication prescribed by a physician.” This would permit physician-assisted suicide. As Jews, how are we to relate to this initiative? Is a Jew permitted to take this course of action? Would a Jewish doctor be allowed under halachah to offer this option to a patient?
Though we all hope and pray for good health, at times we face painful circumstances. Serving as a congregational rabbi, I often have the difficult duty of working with families throughout their most challenging times. During these complicated situations, our tradition, Jewish texts and halachic sources offer us direction and wisdom.
Let’s begin with an episode fresh in our minds, recounted in the moving Elegy of the Ten Martyrs recited on Yom Kippur. One of those martyred was Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, who defied the Roman edict by continuing to teach Torah through his public lectures, which he did with a Torah scroll in his hand. The Talmud describes what the Romans did when they found him:
Straightaway they took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll of the Torah, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. They then brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he would not expire quickly…. His disciples called out, “Rabbi, what do you see?” He answered them, “the parchments are being burnt, but the letters are soaring on high.”
“Open then your mouth so that the fire enters into you,” they called.
He replied, “Let Him who gave me my soul take it away but no one should injure oneself” (Avoda Zarah 18a).
Rabbi Hanina was on the verge of death and suffering greatly during this torture. Death was imminent and certain. Yet he rejected the suggestion of his students that he end his pain by breathing in the fumes, which would hasten his death by asphyxiation. Only God who gave him life may take it away.
In Jewish law and tradition, we do not have proprietary ownership of our bodies. We are merely stewards of our bodies for the period that God has granted us the privilege to sojourn on this earth. We do not have the right to actively hasten our death or to authorize others to do so.
The Torah writes: “However, your blood which belongs to your souls I will demand, of every beast will I demand it; but of man, of every man for that of his brother I will demand the soul of man (Bereshith 9:5).
The Talmud, commenting on this verse, teaches that one may not take his or her own life. “I will demand your blood if shed by your own hands” (Bava Kama 91b).
Rabbi Yaacov Mecklenburg, in his Haketav V’hakabalah, discusses an apparent redundancy in the above-cited verse. “But of man, of every man for that of his brother I will demand the soul of man.” Why does the verse first say “but of man” and then again “of every man for that of his brother?” Mecklenburg explains that there are different motivations for taking life. Sometimes one is moved to take a life by anger, hatred or jealousy. This is the reference “but of man.” Sometimes one takes a life due to love and compassion, in an effort to bring an end to that person’s pain. This is “of every man for that of his brother.”
The Torah, by repeating itself, teaches that these are both considered homicide and equally forbidden. This is not only the case for Jews bound by the 613 mitzvos, but it is also considered binding under the Seven Noahide Laws which, according to the Torah, are binding for all humanity.
Rheba de Tornyay is dean and professor emeritus of the University of Washington School of Nursing. Her husband recently passed away. A decade ago, she had spearheaded the effort to support Initiative 119, similar to the one on the ballot this year. In a column in the Aug. 28, 2008 Seattle P-I she writes:
Rudy, my husband for 53 years, was an ideal candidate for assisted suicide. The doctors told him he had only a few painful months to live. He had no religious convictions against suicide and every reason to embrace it. He was old — in his 90s… My husband survived for 28 months and died last year. But at the end, to my astonishment, I realized I could no longer support physician-assisted suicide. How could that be?... Rudy’s slow march to death convinced me that proposals such as I-1000 are reckless and unnecessary…. Much of my change stems from my discovery, common to surviving spouses, that life is precious to the end. We would have lost wonderful days recalling splendid and troubled times. But I also saw that we now have the means to end the misery without ending the life.
Rabbi Shimon Duran, in his Tashbetz, writes that a physician’s obligation is not only to heal but also to treat pain. We now have technologies of pain management that can treat or reduce pain in most cases. Jewish law would certainly mandate that we do everything possible to treat pain. But it is absolutely prohibited take one’s life, to assist one in taking their life or to actively hasten death in any way.
Every moment of human life has intrinsic value and is sacred. “Why then does a living man complain?” (Eikha 3:39). Rashi explains that God declares: “Why should a living person complain about anything that befalls him, given the great kindness that I do for him by giving him life and not death?” (Rashi Kiddushin 80b).
The Psalmist says: “God has made me suffer severely; but he has not given me over to death” (Tehilim 118:18).
I urge everyone to vote No on Initiative 1000.