Euthanasia

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Dear Rabbi Fried,

With our mother/mother-in-law in an advanced state of dementia, we have spent a lot of time discussing the question of quality of life affecting the value of life. It’s not that we are seriously considering euthanasia, but it would help us a lot to understand the Jewish value of life even when life seems not to have any further worth, importance or significance.

Eunice and Joseph J.

Dear Eunice and Joseph,

It seems to be clear to you that euthanasia is not allowed by Jewish law, which is correct. It is unconditionally, categorically forbidden as it is considered by Jewish law to be murder. There is no allowance for this no matter what the moral, monetary or any other considerations may be. Even if the patient is in intense pain, pain management is the only avenue available — to the extent it helps — but never euthanasia.

This outlook is predicated upon the Jewish perspective of life, which recognizes the inherent priceless value of human life regardless of the present “quality” of life.

Western culture’s concept of “quality of life” is anathema to traditional halacha or Jewish law. For example, one is allowed and even commanded to desecrate the Sabbath (one of the greatest of all prohibitions in Jewish law) to save the life of another even if that person will certainly never live to fulfill another Sabbath or ever perform any meaningful act. This is because of the priceless value of “chayei sha’ah,” even a fleeting moment of life, which supersedes even the all-important mitzvah of Shabbos.

Allow me to quote from the moving words of the renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Victor Frankl, at the closing of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which vividly captures the Jewish outlook on this subject. “…Life’s meaning is an unconditional one…. That unconditional meaning, however, is paralleled by the unconditional value of each and every person. It is that which warrants the indelible quality of the dignity of man. Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable, so too does the value of each and every person stay with him or her, and it does so because it is based on the values that he or she has realized in the past and is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present.

“…This usefulness is usually defined in terms of functioning for the benefit of society. But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness…one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program; that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration or whatever handicap they may suffer.

“Confounding the dignity of man with the mere usefulness arises from a conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced back to the contemporary nihilism transmitted on many an academic campus and many an analytical couch….”

Indeed, Dr. Frankl’s entire book is an amazing testimony to life’s holding great meaning even in the worst situations, situations that one would have trouble conjuring up in the worst possible nightmare. This attests to his deep Jewish roots where, in our tradition, life is inherently priceless.

We have discussed the general Jewish outlook. I would, however, suggest always discussing questions of a specific nature with a competent rabbinical authority to issue a ruling in that specific case.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.

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