How “Death with Dignity” Undermines Life With Dignity: A Jewish Approach

  • Supporters of euthanasia and assisted suicide have been making inroads in Western Europe and North America for years.

In the United States, they tend to argue that a free society must allow medical doctors to help people preserve their dignity through suicide. In Europe, they have gone so far as to argue that doctors and governments ought to intervene to prevent parents from providing their own children with medical treatment. While it has mainly been Christians who have opposed the “death with dignity” or “right to die” movement, including in high-profile cases like those of Brittany Maynard and Charlie Gard, traditionalist Jewish groups such as the Rabbinical Council of America have joined Christians in the fight.

There are Jewish imperatives to oppose “death with dignity” and a “right to die,” reasons that are responsible for the development of the idea of human dignity and the sanctity of human life within Western civilization. Let us consider what traditional Judaism has to say about death, so that we understand why it so strongly opposes glorifying it or rendering it innocuous.

During the High Holidays, Ashkenazi Jews contemplate death in one of their liturgy’s most somber and well-known prayers. Unetaneh Tokef describes how we might die: “who by fire and who by water,” along with many other possibilities. Ysoscher Katz of the “open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has suggested deleting or qualifying it, and the Reform movement’s new High Holiday prayer book appends a Carl Sandberg poem and the following words of inspiration: “I speak these words, but I don’t believe them…clearly there’s no scientific foundation…” Yet Leonard Cohen, hardly a religious traditionalist, wrote “Who by Fire” based on the dread-filled Jewish prayer, modernizing the lyrics to include “who by barbiturate.” He understood that the prayer’s message, even for the nonbeliever, is that life and death ultimately are out of human hands. Human action can hasten or delay death, but it is God who, in the words of another prayer, “brings death and grants life.”

By contrast, the new euthanasiasts wish to take this power and deliver it to into the hands of man. If unchecked, their efforts will result in this Divine prerogative devolving not to the individual, but to doctors and bureaucrats.

Let’s consider some of the ways that the right-to-die movement seeks to sanitize or dignify death.

First, there is euthanasia and assisted suicide, along with a general preference for non-treatment in hospitals. Having worked as a member of the clergy at healthcare facilities for years, my colleagues and I have witnessed a genuine “culture of death,” wherein too many of those who ought to be healers instead become agents of death. Some are well-meaning, seeking to help patients avoid what they believe to be needless suffering. Others may be motivated by financial considerations, such as saving medical facilities money. Whatever the rationale, too many of us have witnessed premature hospice visits and recommendations to withhold treatments. It is becoming normal for hospitals to effectively starve, dehydrate, or suffocate patients to death by withholding nutrition, fluids, or oxygen from people who would live with them, because there is no obligation to “artificially” supply someone with life’s basic needs.

Patients with dedicated families tend to fare better than those left alone at the mercy of healthcare facilities. Too many caregivers and even family members justify these practices, and sometimes explicit support for euthanasia and assisted suicide, by arguing that many patients are better off dead, since they have insufficient “quality of life” to justify their continued existence.

Another argument for assisted suicide and euthanasia is that patients suffering from unbearable pain ought not to suffer. This is a more difficult argument to dismiss, and we shall address it shortly.

To understand why these arguments are not compelling, as well as why they inherently undermine support for life, we should consider several points.

First, there is the slippery-slope argument, which many Christian critics have raised. There is much truth to the argument, seeing as euthanasia proponents have begun to offer their services to the mentally ill in Europe. There is no clear point at which an argument about a “right to die” ought to end. Indeed, there is no logical reason why, if there is a “right to die,” society ought to do anything to discourage people from committing suicide. Instead of treating suicide as an inappropriate temporary solution to a permanent problem, or a symptom of a treatable psychiatric condition, we would need to treat it as both a rational decision and a legitimate right.

But then we ought to consider why this slippery slope exists in the first place. And here Judaism is particularly helpful, with its teaching that there is nothing dignified about death. A Jew cannot die with dignity; he can only live with dignity. Our deaths are dignified not by the circumstances in which they occur, but by the extent to which we sacrifice our living moments for what is right. Pagans, including ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans, all believed death with honor — usually characterized by death in battle — to be far superior to ordinary death. How people died was far more important than how they lived. Not so for Judaism, which emphasized that the content of life is what matters, and that even martyrdom is characterized by sacrificial dedication rather than glory.

This difference of opinion had major ramifications. For instance, while Romans commonly glorified suicide, Jews vehemently opposed shortening a life, even for a short period of time.

The “death with dignity” movement seeks to fulfill an age-old pagan impulse: to control the circumstances of death to give it meaning. This is, however, an attempt to escape what Judaism teaches us: that there can be no death with dignity, only life with dignity. That death is tamei — impure. It is the skull on the Renaissance scholar’s desk, reminding him of what Ecclesiastes teaches us: the sorrowful yet inspiring reality that precisely because life is fleeting, every moment ought to be cherished and lived to its fullest.

Aldous Huxley’s savage in Brave New World insisted to his society’s “death with dignity” practitioners that Shakespeare was right in warning that death is black as night, something to be feared rather than dismissed. To argue otherwise is a fatal conceit for true human dignity, resulting in undervaluing the importance of living every moment of life to its fullest.

This is not to minimize the existence of heartrending cases involving pain and suffering. But attempts to end pain do not justify creating a legal regime to enlist the help of healers in support of those who resort to extreme measures. Judaism is full of extreme examples of Jews who took their own lives in unusual circumstances, from the Roman occupation to Masada to the Crusades. But we ought to emulate medieval Jewish commentators, who discouraged such behavior while refusing to condemn the heroes of the past. It is not our place to judge those who made difficult choices in the face of challenges that we do not face. But at the same time, we ought not normalize the extreme. If we do so, we will undermine appreciation for the infinite significance of life.

We ought to encourage our loved ones to live, and mourn when they feel they cannot. Creating deadly legal channels offers only a false sense of human dignity. What people do in extreme circumstances is not the business of the law. By making the killing of the innocent the business of the law, instead of fostering individual dignity, we instead turn the law against human dignity.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University's James Madison Program. He is also a Chaplain in the New Jersey Army National Guard with the rank of Captain, and the President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. He lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and two daughters.
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