The Bible Says What? ‘Rabbi was helped to die’
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The Bible Says What? ‘Rabbi was helped to die’

Rabbi Danny Rich takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a Liberal response

Stock image of a hospital bed (Credit: Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash)
Stock image of a hospital bed (Credit: Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash)

Judaism is life affirming and has at its core the concept of pikuach nefesh – making questions about the end of life more difficult than they might otherwise be.

Although the majority of the Jewish community does now support assisted dying – 71 percent being in favour in a recent survey – there is a split along our usual fault line of ‘traditional’ against ‘liberal’.

This debate goes back as far as the Babylonian Talmud and the story of the death of the famous Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the Prince, who died in circa 200CE. 

Judah is dying of a painful illness, but his disciples gather around his bed praying that he may live.

His devoted handmaid, seeing there is no pain like that of her master, ascends to the roof, takes a pitcher and throws it to the ground. Its smashing distracts the disciples from their prayer and in that moment the rabbi dies. In throwing the pot, she interrupted the prayers and effectively killed him.

Was this an act of compassion by a woman who was able to comprehend that the disciples had lost sight of their master’s needs, were consumed by their own and were, in practice, carrying out an extraordinary method of artificial life support? We know the sources are agreed on only one thing: there is no disapproval of the handmaiden or her action.

Judaism has, for much of its history, taken the view that a human being is made up of the physical and the spiritual, the soul and the body. If it is our goal to ensure everyone lives well, then we have an equal responsibility to see that they die well: empowered, as free as possible from pain and
discomfort and with their souls as comforted as it is possible to be.

  •  Rabbi Danny Rich is a vice president of Liberal Judaism

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