On June 8, a bill proposed by Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah legalizing physician- assisted suicide passed the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs in a vote of 8-2. If passed, the new law would allow doctors to administer a lethal injection to terminally ill patients who have six months or less to live. And while there has been some opposition from lawmakers and the Chief Rabbinate, what is surprising is the overwhelming support for the new bill – by Knesset Members and the Israeli public.
Advocates of such a law question the quality of life for patients in the last stages of a terminal illness. They speak about freedom of choice, a patient’s right to autonomy, dying with dignity, and compassion.
Even the late “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, called the device he used in the deaths of some of the 130 people he helped euthanize the “Mercitron,” evoking mercy and compassion.
But according to Jewish Law, euthanasia is not compassion – it is murder (See Rambam, Hil. Rotze’ah 2:2-3). A patient has no right to take his own life, and, as Chief Rabbi David Lau already commented, a doctor’s sole responsibility is to heal – not to end life (see Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 336:1).
While some of the greatest legal authorities of the 20th century such as Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that in some cases introducing treatment and taking measures in order to extend life are no longer required, all agree that doing anything to hasten the death of a terminally ill patient is akin to murder. Even in the case of a goses, who according to most authorities has less than 72 hours left to live, it is forbidden to take any action that may hasten his death – even touching the patient is prohibited! (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 339:1) The Talmud (Avodah Zara 18a) relates that when Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion was being burned alive by the Romans, his students begged him to end his suffering by opening his mouth and allowing the flames to enter. Rabbi Chanina replied, “It is better for He who gave [me my soul] to take it, rather than cause injury to myself.”
This account illustrates that even the dying patient, suffering in pain, is prohibited from taking any action to hasten his death. R. Avraham Danzig rules that one must abstain from doing anything even if the patient’s pain is severe and his family is suffering severe emotional pain (Hokhmat Adam 151:14).
This should not be mistaken for cruelty or a lack of compassion. Instead, it expresses Judaism’s emphasis on life. Concerning the Torah’s laws, we are instructed to “Live by them” (Leviticus 18:5). The Talmud (Yoma 85b) adds, “And not die by them,” requiring the violation of all but three Torah laws in order to preserve life. For in the Jewish tradition, life is of infinite worth. A famous Talmudic passage teaches, “If any person has caused a single soul to perish, Scripture regards him as if he had caused an entire world to perish. And if any human being saves a single soul, Scripture regards him as if he has saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a).
While advocates for physician-assisted suicide argue that a life of pain and suffering is not worth living, our tradition teaches that even the last few moments of life are of immeasurable worth.
And while even secular ethicists agree that euthanasia presents serious ethical, moral and legal questions, in some countries like Belgium and the Netherlands physician-assisted suicide is legal. Even in the United States, physician-assisted suicide has been legal in the State of Oregon since 1994. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act allows for a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of medication for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. In fact, MK Ofer Shelah’s bill was designed based on Oregon law.
But Israel is not Belgium, the Netherlands, or the State of Oregon. The State of Israel is the Jewish state, and religious affiliations aside, Judaism values life above all.
In Judaism, life has sanctity. A law legalizing physician-assisted suicide threatens to undermine the Jewish character of the Jewish state.
It’s high time we embrace our status as a “light unto the nations.” As the Shelah bill proceeds to a preliminary reading and is assigned to a committee, the State of Israel, as the Jewish state, has an obligation to articulate a clear message to the world that life has value and sanctity, and must be protected and preserved.
The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem.