Jewish law prohibits euthanasia: Rabbi helped father die – The Forward

“Promise me you’ll help me die.”

My father was 92 years old. He suffered from congestive heart failure and COPD. He lived on oxygen and a dozen drugs that had kept him alive since a debilitating stroke crippled him forty years ago. Last year, when his doctors told him he was going to die in weeks or even months, he desperately needed to end his life on his own terms.

My phone was ringing in my Brooklyn apartment.

“Dad?”

“You have to help me die today, Rachel. I have to die today, please.

“I can’t help you die today, dad.”

“Rachel, please, you have to help me.”

That’s how it went, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, until my brother realized that in California, where they live, it was legal for my dad to choose to put end to his days.

And so I found myself at my father’s bedside in Los Angeles, supporting him as he committed suicide, as his daughter and as a rabbi.

Reviews | I’m a rabbi and I helped my father end his life

Judaism holds life sacred. In Genesis, when creating humans, Gd sees that is fine. Gd creates us in the image of Gd and breathes life into human beings, giving human life supreme value. The Mishnah teaches that saving one life is like saving an entire world. Pikuach nefesh (save a life) supersedes all other mitzvot except those prohibiting murder, adultery and idolatry. This love of life is the foundation of Jewish ethics and has led our tradition to firmly oppose any action that would lead to death.

Thus we read in the “Comprehensive Guide to Medical Halakha”, published in 1990 by Abraham S. Abraham:

“One cannot hasten a death, even that of a patient who is in great pain and for whom there is no hope of recovery, even if the patient asks for it. To cut short a person’s life, even a life of agony and suffering, is forbidden.

And in “Modern Medicine and Jewish Ethics” by Fred Rosner in 1991:

“Any positive act intended to hasten the death of the patient is equated with murder in Jewish law…. only the Creator, who bestows the gift of life, can relieve man of this life, even when it has become a burden rather than a blessing.

I am a rabbi. I am well aware of Judaism’s ban on euthanasia. But when I realized that my father was going to commit suicide, I knew without a doubt that I would be by his side. He had persevered in this life for 92 years, without complaining, to be there for us and for his grandchildren. Now he wanted to leave the world, and all I could do was honor his wishes.

Reviews | I’m a rabbi and I helped my father end his life

As this became my father’s story, I began to investigate our tradition more deeply and found voices that questioned this consensus in Jewish law. For example, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz argues that the story of Rabbi Hananiah’s tortured death at the hands of the Romans, which is usually read as evidence of the ban on euthanasia, can also be read to argue that to hasten death when death is unavoidable is an act of mercy. Rabbi Kravitz argues that terminally ill and suffering Jews should be able to choose a mitah yafah, a good death, which Rashi defines as sheyamut maher, that they must die quickly, especially since the Talmud prescribes this kind of death for criminals who will be executed by the court. If criminals deserve a good death, one in which they are spared long, slow agony and suffering, Rabbi Kravitz argues, shouldn’t those who have committed no crime be allowed to choose that as well?

I’m raising this now in this public forum because my sister made a movie about my dad’s death called “Last Flight Home”, and her movie is premiering at Sundance Film Festival today. In the film, viewers will see me playing the role of a daughter and also a rabbi, loving and supporting my father as he ends his life. I am aware that this will be upsetting and even offensive to many members of the Jewish community. I do not wish to create controversy on this question, and I would not have chosen to make this film. I wouldn’t have chosen to have my father’s death seen by the public at all, and I wouldn’t have chosen to defend this issue. But I have cared for others who desperately wanted this choice at the end of their lives, and I think it might be time for the Jewish people to reconsider their views on this important issue.

Reviews | I’m a rabbi and I helped my father end his life

Reviews | I’m a rabbi and I helped my father end his life

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.

About Norman Griggs

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