Progressively Speaking: This week – cryonics

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Progressively Speaking: This week – cryonics

The senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism reflects on a current topical debate

Rabbi Danny Rich
Rabbi Danny Rich

The case of the 14-year-old London girl dying of an incurable cancer has propelled the ‘science’ of cryonics into the public domain.

Cryonics – the freezing of a human body or a part thereof to a temperature of -196°C – has been possible since 1967 in the US, where some 300 bodies are already cryopreserved.

Although the girl’s father expressed doubts, she was supported by her mother.

The legal matter arrived at the Family Division of the High Court where Mr Justice Jackson, having visited the girl, spoke of how he was impressed by the valiant way she had faced her situation and moved by “her desire to live longer”.

The judge had, of course, to consider two aspects: what was in the interests of the child and did she understand the legal process and implications of her request?

Judaism lays a particular emphasis on the duty to relieve pain and suffering, as inferred not only from the general emphasis in Judaism on compassion, but by the practice of giving a condemned criminal as he was led to execution a goblet of wine to numb his senses in accord with the verse from Proverbs 31:6 ‘Give strong drink to one who is about to perish’ (Sanhedrin 43a).

On the other hand, Judaism considers death a part of life which ought to be treated as such in aspects including preparations and rituals. “Judaism recognises that death is natural and the dying process begins long before the last breath is drawn,” observes Mark Popvsky.

It remains, in my view, the duty of us all to help each other to accept the reality of death and make the dying as free as possible from pain and discomfort.

Perhaps like Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Przysucha, we all have to “learn how to die”.

υ Rabbi Danny Rich is the senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism

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