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The courage of affirming life: Ariel Sharon’s legacy

Jewish bioethics teach that life itself is of infinite value; sometimes choosing it over death is the greater show of courage

One word that stands out in the many eulogies and obituaries of Ariel Sharon is courage. Whether fiercely charging ahead against all odds in battle or making difficult and painful political decisions, Sharon stood firm in championing what he believed to be right.

A stroke eight years ago left him in a coma, dependent of intensive medical care to keep him alive. For a short period, his family tried to care for him at his home, although this proved too difficult to manage outside of a healthcare setting and he was therefore transferred back to a hospital, where he eventually died just over a week ago.

While he was one of the more vocal and boisterous politicians that Israel has known, even during his later years, his illness left him suddenly quiet. For his last eight years, he could not communicate in any way. Having never made his healthcare ­­preferences known, his children – acting as his medical proxies – chose to do whatever possible to keep their father alive.

As Jane Eisner eloquently wrote, this too is part of Sharon’s legacy. In her personal and heartfelt remarks, she questioned whether this represented an authentic Jewish way of dying with dignity.

“I don’t know how the Sharon sons were able to stare at their shell of a father year after year, when it was clear that there was no chance he would awaken to be anything resembling the man he was.”

I’d like to suggest an alternative perspective, particularly if we are looking for a “Jewish way” to die.

Judaism is a life-affirming religion. The Torah commands, “Behold I have given before you today the good and the bad, life and death – Choose life!” It is this outlook that forms the philosophical backdrop for setting aside virtually all prohibitions to try to save a life. The Talmud exhorts us that, “Nothing can stand in the way of saving lives (pikuah nefesh).”

I certainly cannot speak to the Sharon boys’ motives or thoughts, but I think Eisner missed the point.

It’s not always about the possibility for recovery. It’s about life itself, because according to Jewish Tradition life is something good in itself. This is powerful and far-reaching statement.

As R. Lord Immanuel Jakobovits (the “father of Jewish bioethics”) put it, the Torah is asserting that life is of infinite value. Not because of what you can do or have accomplished, but because it is life granted by God. You can’t precisely measure infinity nor can you ever compare one infinity to another.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we must pursue life at every cost. Cognizant of the suffering often experienced in end-of-life situations, most halakhic authorities recognize a limit to the obligation to save a life. You simply need not do everything at all costs if it will increase or even simply extend suffering. But even without a strict obligation, choosing life is still an act of mitzvah performance. In Talmudic parlance, we might say that while there may be no particular hiyyuv (obligation), there certainly is a kiyyum ha-mitzvah (mitzvah fulfillment)

But even without imposing itself on any particular situation, Jewish Tradition is telling us something deeper. That when there is no suffering, when the ‘cost’ is not all encompassingly burdensome – choose life.

An Auschwitz survivor used to relate a story that her father told her and her sisters before the war, that often helped her cope amid the horrors of the Holocaust. Two people had lost all of their money, run out options and became severely depressed. Together they decided to end their troubles by ending their lives. They walked to a bridge in the middle of the night and the first person closed his eyes, concentrated hard, and took his fateful jump. Watching his friend’s tragic end, the second person also closed his eyes, concentrated hard, but couldn’t bring himself to budge. He slowly turned around and headed back home. “Who had more courage?” the survivor’s father asked. “The one who chose to end his misery or the one who chose to continue living despite the misery and troubles that lay ahead?”

I agree with Eisner. Sharon’s legacy will not only be his military and political courage; it will also be about how he died. How his son’s displayed courage in affirming as a value in itself, to do what they thought to be right and good, even when it may have been difficult and uncomfortable.

May his memory be a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi David Shabtai, MD is the Rabbi of the Sephardic Minyan at Boca Raton Synagogue and the author of Defining the Moment: Understanding Brain Death in Halakhah [amzn.com/0615560482]. All opinions are his own.
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