A Jewish right to die?

A Jewish right to die?

NJ rabbis differ sharply on halachic views for proposed assisted suicide law

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Gov. Phil Murphy has committed to signing the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act that was passed by the legislature March 25. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor of New Jersey)
Gov. Phil Murphy has committed to signing the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act that was passed by the legislature March 25. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor of New Jersey)

Jewish opinions on the acceptability of assisted suicide are surprisingly consistent across the major denominations — it’s virtually never OK. That’s not just the case from an Orthodox perspective, but from Conservative and Reform responsa, as well.

It makes the positions of Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz and Rabbi Mark Mallach all the more startling.

Bill S1072, legislation that would make assisted suicide legal in New Jersey, passed both chambers of the state’s Legislature on March 25. The law, which is now awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature, would give patients with fewer than six months to live and who meet certain conditions the option of voluntarily ending their own lives.

“Suffering unnecessarily is a terrible thing to put someone through,” said Mallach, who leads the Conservative Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield.

“What a gift to be able to have your rabbi say it’s OK,” said Dantowitz, a Reform rabbi at the independent Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.

In interviews with NJJN, area rabbis expressed a variety of opinions. While most adhere to the traditional reading of Jewish law and oppose the legislation, others, citing compassion and dignity, do not.

Some rabbis in favor of assisted suicide suggest the teshuvot, or official positions of their respective movements, ought to be reconsidered, while others struggle to find ways to make existing standards meaningful.

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham is in favor of the compassion behind New Jersey’s Aid in Dying bill.

“The tradition is unequivocal, but we need to retake up this issue in a nuanced way,” said Rabbi Marc Katz of the Reform Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. As far as he is concerned, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform Movement’s rabbinic leadership organization, should update its responsa on the issue. The most recent one, written in the 1990s, is outdated in his view, and no longer reflects the opinions of the rabbinate. (The most recent Conservative teshuva also dates from the 1990s.) Although Katz is not sure his peers uniformly support assisted suicide the way they uniformly condemned it decades ago, he does see a shift.

“My read on society is that we are moving toward greater acceptance of ‘right to die,’ which means eventually our culture will dictate a re-examination of the issue by the CCAR.”

But Rabbi Elie Mischel of the Orthodox Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston does not see room for nuance. “Actively speeding one’s death is clearly forbidden under Jewish law (for both Jews and gentiles), and it is a rejection of the sanctity of every moment of life,” he wrote in an email to NJJN. “Though we are not obligated to do everything humanly possible to prolong someone’s life (e.g., a very ill patient has the right to forgo a risky and painful surgery that has little chance to succeed), actively taking one’s own life is never permissible.”

Rabbi Benjamin Adler of the Conservative Adath Israel in Lawrenceville, agrees. “Jewish tradition opposes both suicide and assisted suicide as outlined in the proposed [N.J.] law,” he said. Same for Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Conservative Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor. “The idea of doing something like taking a drug to end a life is not in conformity with Jewish law, as per our tradition, as our bodies belong to God,” he said.

Rabbi Avi Schnall, N.J. director of Agudath Israel of America, said that the Orthodox organization fought hard against the passage of the assisted suicide bill.

Yet for those who support the legislation, experience with terminally ill patients drives the conversation. For Dantowitz, the path is clear. “Halacha is called halacha because it moves,” she said, referring to the root of the word, halach, which means walk. Which is to say that there’s the traditional position against assisted suicide, “And there’s the lived reality… Anyone who has experienced the suffering of a loved one understands.” She added, “I can’t state that halacha says [assisted suicide is permissible]. But I’m speaking as a Jewish person, as a rabbi, as a human being who lives and sees the suffering that’s out there. Why should a person have to keep suffering?”

Principles of Jewish law involved in assisted suicide focus on the idea that only God gives and takes life; humans don’t have a right to decide when to end it, or to take any action that would hasten death. The only times when suicide is acceptable is if it is the only way an individual can avoid committing the sins of murder, idolatry, or sexual immorality. On the other hand, as Mischel noted, it is not a halachic requirement to take actions that would prolong a person’s life, and if a dying person or the family wishes, life-saving treatments can be withheld.

“This area is one that is very hard on patients and families,” said Mallach. “It’s extremely complicated.” For him the question of not prolonging life is the easier one. For example, if someone is on a respirator that is keeping them alive “beyond where they would not continue to live,” then he sees nothing wrong with applying the principle of not prolonging one’s life by giving families the option of removing the patient from the respirator.

“I share with families that either their loved one will breathe on their own or not. It gives them an opening.” (Many Jewish authorities disagree with this interpretation as turning the respirator off actively brings the patient closer to death.)

Taking it one step further is trickier for him. If someone with a terminal illness has a short period to live, can steps be taken to accelerate the process further? “It’s very hard to say,” Mallach said, but “If the circumstances warrant it, I think there is a valid reason to say ‘yes.’”

He acknowledged that there is no teshuva to back him up, but he’s sure he’s not the only Conservative rabbi to hold such an opinion. Like Katz said about Reform Judaism, Mallach thinks it may be time for the Conservative Movement to revisit the issue. “Jewish law has always been organic, responding to the needs of society in every generation,” he said. “Jewish law is not frozen.”

For Kornsgold, who doesn’t find any wiggle room in the laws against assisted suicide, the dilemma is in determining when the principle of not prolonging a life applies. “The challenge is separating active euthanasia from passive euthanasia,” he said. “If a person refuses treatment, and that is what happens at times [with a terminally ill patient], it is passive and their choice.”

In addition to New Jersey, seven states and the District of Columbia, have physician-assisted suicide laws. For the proposed N.J. law, in order to be eligible for assisted suicide some of the conditions that would have to be met include that the patient must be capable of making health-care decisions; the patient must have a terminal illness with less than six months to live; the patient must make the request at least twice and have the opportunity to rescind the request; the patient must make a third request in writing, with two witnesses present; and the patient must administer the drugs provided in front of a witness who is not a family member or the patient’s physician, has no interest in the patient’s estate, and is not an employee, owner, or operator of a health-care facility where the patient is receiving treatment.

The Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America opposed the legislation. “We lobbied hard against the Assisted Suicide bill that was passed,” said its N.J. director, Rabbi Avi Schnall. “We have been lobbying against it for six years, talking to legislators and testifying.”

For Adler, who also opposes the bill, the conversation about assisted suicide is not productive. But he has another suggestion for lawmakers. “Rather than allow doctors to help people end their lives, I would like to see the state of New Jersey take steps to improve palliative care so that terminally ill patients can live out their final days in comfort, peace, and dignity,” he said.

In any case, Mallach said, the legislation makes pastoral care a little easier. “My hands aren’t as tied in the legal arena to advise” congregants. “It really opens the door” to have more direct, explicit conversations.

King Saul famously, and controversially, fell on his sword in battle (though an individual later claimed that he granted the injured Saul’s dying wish by slaying him before the enemy could reach him), and almost 1,000 Jewish rebels on Masada committed mass suicide rather than be killed by the encroaching Roman army, but according to most halachic sources, it would be a stretch to use either case as precedent for assisted suicide.

Dantowitz acknowledged that it is a “leap” from taking no action that prolongs life to taking “positive action” to end a life, and said applications of assisted suicide are case specific.

It is only appropriate, she said, “If someone is in severe pain and making a rational decision — not a rash decision because this is a difficult day emotionally, physically, spiritually — it’s got to be after a long thought process … It’s got to be more than a fleeting response.” But when it’s the right decision, she sees it as no different from other steps we take to preserve our quality of life, even as death approaches.

“We have DNR [do not resuscitate orders] and living wills — all these things,” Dantowitz said. “Ask people if they want to longer and be in pain. Nobody wants that.”

NJJN Staff Writer Jed Weisberger contributed reporting.

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