There were times when my atheist-Jewish-Polish grandfather was in such excruciating pain near the end of his 96-year-long life that he told me he wanted to be euthanized.
Zaida was my intellectual sparing partner, the one who took me on dinner dates to our favourite Italian restaurant where I would always order him a Shirley Temple with extra cherries, and the one who looked forward to reading every term paper I wrote.
That my parents welcomed him into our family home to live with us for seven years during my high school and university days was among the best gifts they have given me. Not only was our family nurtured by his affection; his presence undeniably brought out the best in each of us. It seems to me that our family was most our family when he was with us.
When he was moved from a hospital to a hospice, things improved for him and during my last visit with him shortly before his death, he was in relatively good health and much better spirits. Even this man who said the Holocaust had made him an atheist and that he wanted to write atheistic books like Hitchens developed a reverent attitude then. I’ll always remember him saying, filled with thankful wonder, “These nurses who are caring for me around the clock are angels” and “What a miracle it is to live for 96 years!”
If there are a couple key facets of Jewish ethics that have struck me, these are: responsibility and the primacy of life. Consider these words of Leon Kass:
You don’t have to be Jewish to drink L’Chaim, to lift a glass “To Life.” Everyone in his right mind believes that life is good and that death is bad. But Jews have always had an unusually keen appreciation of life, and not only because it has been stolen from them so often and so cruelly. The celebration of life—of this life, not the next one—has from the beginning been central to Jewish ethical and religious sensibilities. In the Torah, “Be fruitful and multiply” is God’s first blessing and first command. Judaism from its inception rejected child-sacrifice and regarded long life as a fitting divine reward for righteous living. At the same time, Judaism embraces medicine and the human activity of healing the sick; from the Torah the rabbis deduced not only permission for doctors to heal, but also the positive obligation to do so. Indeed, so strong is this reverence for life that the duty of pikuah nefesh requires that Jews violate the holy Shabbat in order to save a life. Not by accident do we Jews raise our glasses “L’Chaim.”
And perhaps it’s matter of my family’s cultural Judaism that my parent’s favourite household motto is: “Health is #1.”
So how can it be that Jews, who supposedly have an “unusually keen appreciation of life” are among those at the forefront of euthanasia advocacy in Canada?
Dying with Dignity is Canada’s main euthanasia advocacy organization. Jack Pasht, Chair of the Board of Directors, reportedly considers euthanasia a “social justice issue that should naturally attract interest and support within the Jewish community.”
Shelley Birenbaum, formerly Board Director at Jewish Family and Child Services, is now a euthanasia ambassador who urges the Jewish community to get more involved in the issue.
Major Dying with Dignity donor Judy Broadbent also worked previously for Jewish Family and Child Services.
Also on the board is Carey Diamond who belongs to a Reform Synagogue.
Moses Znaimer was the Founding Patron of Dying with Dignity. According to this article, his longtime partner said, “We were both born Jewish, but neither of us believe in organized religion. I think what Moses is doing is almost rabbinic, almost Talmudic. The purpose of being Jewish is to save the world, to make it a better place. If (Moses) is Jewish in any way, it’s that.”
Now, it’s clear that there is no Jewish consensus on euthanasia, as with many ethical issues.
This article surveyed the views of some Canadian rabbis who expressed their concerns:
Rabbi Steinmetz worries that vulnerable people might be bullied into euthanasia by unscrupulous relatives.
It’s also a choice that’s incompatible with traditional Jewish values, according to Rabbi Ronald Weiss, director of the chaplaincy services at Toronto’s Jewish Family & Child, who also serves several medical and correctional institutions.
He says the Orthodox position on PAD is very clear. “It’s murder to help someone die. It’s no different than a physician taking your life… Judaism teaches that every moment of life is precious and of infinite value.”
Rabbi Michael Dolgin, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, says any discussion of PAD is taboo, according to sacred texts. “From a Jewish perspective, we can’t even talk about it, but that finality is an inadequate Jewish response.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks insists that “the Jewish tradition is firmly opposed to assisted dying“. He concludes that piece saying:
To legalise assisted dying is fraught with dangers, chief of which is the deconsecration of life. The history of societies that have sanctioned euthanasia in the past is not an encouraging one. In part, Judaism and Christianity were protests against ages in which human life was held dispensable and disposable.
Those who propose the current Bill do so from the highest of motives. But purity of motive has never ensured rightness of outcomes; often it has been the reverse. To give the dying dignity, using all possible means to treat their pain is one thing. To allow medically assisted suicide is another. If we lose our reverence for human life we will one day lose much else besides.
Euthanasia cannot be both the deconsecration of life and a celebrated new human right.
Euthanasia cannot be both a sin against the sixth commandment and a matter of social justice.
Euthanasia cannot be both the destroying of a life and the saving of the world.
All of this seems to me a sign of Jewish ethics in crisis.