A Thought on Physician-Assisted Suicide

Terumah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 15, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

This week Shabbat follows by a day the date assigned by the Talmud (the 7th of Adar) for the death of Moses. The Torah leaves us entirely in the dark as to when Moses died. We are told only at the very end of Deuteronomy that Moses died alone atop Mount Nebo, looking out over the Promised Land. Though advanced in years, Moses did not die of old age: “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated (34:7).” That is, he died suddenly, without illness and suffering, or in the words of Rashi, by the touch of a divine kiss (on the basis of the phrase “al pi adonai;” literally, “by the mouth of God” – 34:5).

Most of humanity is not graced with the retention of such dignity at death. We often part this world wracked and battered, but a shadow of our former selves. Modern science enables us to live far longer and fight much harder, but it has not brought us the wisdom to know when and how to let go. And so American society is once again impaled on a boundary issue: physician-assisted suicide. As we await the Supreme Court’s review of two dramatic federal court decisions in favor of such medical assistance, it behooves us as Jews to ponder the relevant values of Judaism.

My point of departure, as it ought to be, is our parasha. At first blush, Terumah’s cascade of details on the building of the Tabernacle appears to be hopelessly unrelated. But the Rabbis never let numbing specificity dampen their ethical impulse or literary sensitivity. The centerpiece of the Tabernacle is to be the Ark, and the Torah’s narrative begins with this artifact (Exodus 25:10-22). Twice we are told (vs. 16 & 21) that the Ark is to house the evidence of God’s revelation, the covenant between God and Israel, the tablets of stone. It is this unique deposit which will render the Ark as the most sacred spot in the Tabernacle and the locus of future communications between God and Moses.

There is no indication in our parasha or the rest of the Torah that anything else was to go into the Ark. A personal tragedy, however, often helps us to find meanings unimagined. Rav Yosef, a Babylonian sage of the early fourth century, called “Sinai” for his comprehensive, orderly knowledge of both the Written and Oral Torah, was once afflicted with a grave illness that stripped him of his learning. Only the devoted aid of a devastated student helped him restore the content of his memory. Often he would confess to his students in anguish that he no longer recalled the point under discussion.

In the wake of this painful experience, Rav Yosef declared that the fragments of the tablets shattered by Moses at the sight of the Golden Calf were also preserved in the Ark. Though rendered illegible, they had lost none of their holiness. Nor was a scholar, the living embodiment of the Tablets, suddenly deprived by fate of his acuity and erudition, to be respected any the less.

Aside from its poignancy, this remarkable midrash implies that the holiness of a human vessel is not a matter of perfection. While scholars of Torah are especially absorbed with God’s presence and purpose, it is a fundamental tenet of Judaism that all of humankind bears the imprint and spark of the divine. (Why may we extinguish a light on Shabbat when overcome by fear or to give comfort to someone who is sick? Because the light of the soul which derives from God takes precedence over a light wrought by human hands). The supreme value of human life is not contingent but absolute. The prohibition to murder is enunciated early in the Torah and unequivocally: “He who sheds human blood by humans his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God did God make humankind” (Genesis 9:6).

Moreover, the biblical account of creation undergirds the attribution of ultimate value to each human being. Human life begins with a single couple not only to assert that all human beings are utterly equal, descendants of the same parents, but also to remind us that the murder of but a single person would once have brought all human existence to an abrupt end. Hence, there can be no doubt that saving a life (non-Jewish as well as Jewish) overrides the careful observance of Shabbat. We are instructed to violate one Shabbat for the person in danger so that he or she may yet celebrate many others.

Even extreme circumstances do not diminish the sanctity of life for Judaism. The Talmud relates the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon who refused to desist from teaching Torah in public during the Hadrianic persecutions in 2nd century Palestine. The Romans sentenced him to be burned alive, enwrapped in the Torah scroll from which he had taught. To delay his death and increase his suffering, they covered his chest with water-soaked cotton. When his students urged Rabbi Hanina to hasten his end by inhaling the flames, he refused: “It would be better if the One who gave me my life should take it back rather than for me to impair it myself.” Yet, he did allow his executioner, who could not contain his admiration for the equanimity of his victim, to stoke the flames and remove the cotton, so that Rabbi Hanina would expire more quickly.

This intricate tale of heroism, which I have not fully recounted, became the classic Jewish source for repudiating suicide as a valid alternative to suffering. The only pro-active measure to be extracted from it halakhically was the right to remove impediments which might be construed as retarding the onset of death.

Clearly this consistent and deep-seated reverence for human life constitutes a value system and legal structure not easily overturned in favor of physician-assisted suicide. Nor should it be. The broken tablets were treated with the same veneration as those in perfect condition. The mishap did not make them less precious. Each time I meet a spouse who tenderly cares for a mate hopelessly afflicted by Alzheimer’s or some other degenerative disease, I am humbled and uplifted by their humanity.

Beyond the weight of Jewish tradition on this grievous subject, I fear that approval of physician-assisted suicide will repeatedly contaminate the judgment of patient and family alike with base economic considerations. The temptation or pressure to choose death in order to save money will all too frequently drive the decision. My heart goes out to all those engulfed by inhuman suffering. But to curtail life directly is an act of a different moral order from ceasing to prolong it indirectly. The abuses that will surely flow from euthanasia will compromise not only the mission of the medical profession but the moral fabric of society itself. And where the social consequences are of such a deleterious magnitude, I believe the welfare of society outweighs the autonomy of the individual.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat T’rumah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.