Two Voices: this week’s Progressive Judaism debate
Q: Are proposals to legalise assisted dying compatible with Jewish values?
• Rabbi Miriam berger
Assisted Dying is not killing people; their terminal illness kills them. Assisted dying simply gives people a sense of power at a time when they are otherwise powerless.
A terminal diagnosis can be a catalyst for fear, not necessarily of death, for the Jewish view is that death is not something to fear, but of the period before it, with the possibility of agonizing pain. Assisted dying changes the process of dying only because it lessens fear. It is not about taking the drugs, rather the reassurance the drugs provide.
In Judaism, a person who is very close to death is called a gosses. This was understood as a momentary state, to be respected and even sanctified. We need to redefine this for the 21st century as medical advances prolong the end of life, perhaps for too long in some cases.
We must grapple with the idea that sometimes death is timely and can be for the best; that it is in fact all right to go far as praying for such an end. We are neither playing God by preventing or enabling the inevitable; we are taking on our role as God’s partners, making life on earth as God had intended, yet when the end comes giving God back God’s own.
• Miriam Berger is rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue
• Rabbi Mark Goldsmith
In every Jewish funeral service we say, “God has given, God has taken away, blessed be the name of God.” This expresses a fundamental Jewish value – which is that our lives are not our own to choose to end.
Every person is of equal value and every moment of every life is of equal value. From this comes the benign implication that all Jews are required to try to heal their fellow persons if they are harmed in any way. Healing could be medical, emotional and spiritual.
That duty to heal includes offering the best in palliative care so that life is not lived with pain and physical distress where this is avoidable. What a duty to heal certainly cannot do without utterly undermining the Jewish value of life is to offer a fast route to death.
We are not duty-bound to prolong life by interventions that will cause distress. We do not have to keep adding more treatments. However, deliberately ending a fellow person’s life indicates that we have chosen that its value has ended. That is a choice which is not open to us to make.
• Mark Goldsmith is rabbi of Alyth (North Western Reform Synagogue)