Therefore Choose Life

Earlier this week you may have read an article in the Boston Globe about religious leaders responding to a ballot initiative that will be on the ballot on Election Day regarding Physician-Assisted Suicide. The article referenced a group of Reform rabbis and cantors who had sent a letter to colleagues urging them to sign on to the letter which urges teaching about this potent issue.

I am proud to have been one of the signatories of the letter calling on our colleagues to urge our communities to learn about our tradition’s teachings on this important issue, as well as Reform Jewish teachings on the subject, and to make well-informed decisions about this important issue which touches upon the holiness of life. Especially as we enter our High Holy Day season, I believe we are called to consider seriously the sanctity of life as we prepare to welcome the New Year.

As I think about this ballot initiative I am reminded that on Yom Kippur morning, according to our Reform practice, we will read the following from Deuteronomy chapter 30:19-20: 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live, 20by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.

While I respect that people will differ in their views on the matter, I urge you to read the letter which has been gathering support amongst Reform Jewish clergy in our Commonwealth.  I am pleased to note that my friend and colleague, Rabbi Neil Hirsch has added his signature, as have a growing number of my colleagues across the Commonwealth.

What follows is the text of our Clergy Letter which will be formally issued later this month, and some links for resources from within our Reform Jewish community I would urge you to consult.  I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Andy Vogel of Temple Sinai for his leadership in bringing us together around this important issue.  Against the backdrop of the Presidential, Senatorial and Congressional races, it could be easy to lose sight of this important issue on which we are also asked to vote.

Please take the time to learn about this issue so that you can make an informed decision as you go to vote in November.

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TEXT OF CLERGY LETTER:

September 2012  /  Tishrei 5773

This coming November, Massachusetts voters will have the opportunity to vote on Question 2, a ballot initiative formally called “Prescribing Medication to End Life.”  If the proposed law passes, it will, under certain circumstances, allow physicians in Massachusetts to prescribe medication to patients who seek to end their lives.

We Reform Jewish rabbis and cantors in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts want to take this opportunity, as voting day approaches, to engage our community members in a discussion about how Jewish values can inform our lives and our choices.  In addition to helping members of the Jewish community consider how Jewish tradition might influence their vote, we hope that this public letter will encourage renewed consideration of Judaism’s emphasis on the sanctity of human life, the concept of B’tzelem Elohim (that each person is created in the Divine image), and the tension between human agency and the Divine.

Jewish tradition gives guidance, not absolutes, regarding end-of-life decisions.  We affirm that individuals may interpret Jewish teachings in a variety of ways in a number of different circumstances, and that every circumstance brings different considerations.  Nonetheless, Jewish tradition is nearly uniform in its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, and the Reform movement’s rabbinic leaders have consistently offered views against allowing active euthanasia.

The Torah commands us to choose life. For most of us, that is an easy commandment to follow; we are glad to be alive.  The words of the Siddur, the prayer book, invite us to greet each morning with a prayer of thanks for one more day of life.  We know, however, that there are some who are stricken with illness whose incessant pain and helplessness lead them to despair.  They turn away from life, and pray for death.  There are those who, given the option, would choose a quick and painless death at the doctor’s hands.

As spiritual leaders, we try to offer comfort and compassion to these individuals, and we hope to lend strength and courage to their families.  Ideally, each person could experience gratitude for the last few months of life and find the “good death” many of us seek: to die at home, free of pain and in the presence of those we love.  We believe that compassion toward the dying is a moral responsibility.  But we also believe that this responsibility can and must be discharged without resort to assisted suicide and active euthanasia. Fortunately, palliative care, including hospice, is available today and, in nearly all circumstances, can provide patients with relief to their suffering.  Compassion need not take the form of assisted suicide.

Although Reform Judaism gives personal autonomy great weight, Judaism has always understood that life is a gift and that ultimately life belongs to God.  If the doctrine of life’s essential holiness means anything at all, it means that we must stand in reverence before the very fact of life, the gift of God that renders us human. This reverence does not diminish as human strength declines; a dying person still possesses life, a life stamped indelibly with the image of God until the moment of death. Even when our intentions are good and merciful, it is an awesome and awful responsibility to determine to end the life of another human being.

We share other concerns about the proposed law: that it opens the possibility of misuse which may endanger certain patients; that prognoses of terminal illnesses are often mistaken; that the physician-patient relationship may become confused through permitting assisted suicide.

Ultimately, we affirm the central Jewish teaching that life is imbued with K’dushah, the sanctity and Divine quality that defines human dignity.

While each person must make his or her own decisions about the end of life, we hope that the teachings of Jewish tradition will inform the members of our community as they consider the meaning and mystery of life, God’s holiest gift.

L’shalom, in peace, and with wishes for a New Year of life, health and blessing.

Signatures 

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Sources to Explore Regarding This Issue:

Our Reform movement, basing itself on the mainstream of Jewish tradition, has consistently formulated learned, thoughtful, and respectful positions against permitting physicians to provide life-ending medications.  We note that there have been some well-respected voices offering their dissents.

For more information from the Reform movement, please click to these resources:

To see an official Massachusetts summary about the ballot initiative, you can click to:

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3 thoughts on “Therefore Choose Life

  1. Josh Bob says:

    Rabbi, this is a thoughtful response, and much appreciated.

    But I wonder: have you ever watched a loved one die a slow, self-imposed death, over 2, 4, or even 7 days? This is “suicide by dehydration,” and it not only eliminates the quality of one’s life, it actually causes the rest of the family to suffer immensely, waiting for the individual to finally pass on so that those who are living can begin mourning.

    I’m still on the fence about my personal view on this ballot measure, primarily because I think it’s far too broad: six months is much too long a runway to allow for physician-assisted death. But I do feel strongly that the clergy letter fails to take into account the final days of a person’s life, after the comfort of palliative care has run its course, when the patient and family are simply awaiting a slow, inevitable death.

    L’shana tova,
    – Josh Bob (Member of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline)

    • Rabbi Eric Gurvis says:

      Josh – thank you for your thoughtful reply. While I have been mostly spared watching family members in the circumstances you describe, as a rabbi I have quite often become very involved with families and shared their journey through these difficult times and circumstances. Indeed, sometimes this has happened with congregants who were dear friends and so I totally “get” your response.

      Our letter recognizes, as does my post, that people will weigh in differently. Most importantly, I want people to approach this thoughtfully, and hopefully with some guidance from our rich tradition which has, I believe, very sensitive teachings on the subject (e.g.: the differentiation between removing obstacles to death when a person is a “goses” [actively dying] and sustaining life when there is reason to hope.) My personal concern about the ballot initiative is framed with too much of a “slippery slope.”

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts — Shabbat Shalom and Shanah tovah!

  2. […] Gurvis and I were both signers on a letter inviting our reform Jewish community weigh our Jewish values into our decision.  To quote our […]

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