The End of Life Option Act was recently passed in the California legislature and signed into law by Governor Brown to great anticipation on behalf of euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates, as well as many patients with terminal illnesses. It was strongly opposed by numerous religious groups, most prominently by the Catholic Church and organizations such as the American College of Physicians – American Society of Internal Medicine and the American Medical Association. Similar bills failed four times in the State Senate, but the right-to-die movement gained traction after Brittany Maynard, a California woman with inoperable brain cancer, recorded a widely-viewed video about her decision to move to Oregon, at the time the only state with legal assisted suicide provisions, in order to commit assisted suicide last year.
In her video, Maynard poignantly stated, “…I am dying and refuse to lose my dignity. I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease.” These heartbreaking sentences essentially capture the principles underlying the right-to-die movement: the high value of dignity and the perceived “purposeless” of inflicting suffering on humans, who have a right to not only avoid it but also to escape it.
In Jewish thought, dignity, or kavod (also translated as “honor”), certainly is of high value; the phrase kavod ha’briyot (“dignity of the creations”) is repeated throughout the Talmud and rabbinic writings and carries significant weight. For example, carrying anything from a private domain to a public one on Shabbat is rabbinically forbidden (see Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 96a), but an exception was made for a small amount of an item used as toilet paper, based on the grounds that kavod ha’briyot necessitates such an action. (Rabbinic dispensations for kavod ha’briyot were, however, only deemed applicable to rabbinic laws, and not to those stated outright in the Torah.) While such an action may seem trivial in comparison to discussions about death and suffering, a deliberate violation of Shabbat can carry severe penalties, up to capital punishment in rare circumstances, under Jewish law.
The concept of the human desire for dignity and its origins are explored in detail from a Jewish perspective by Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik in his extended essay “The Lonely Man of Faith.” Rabbi Soloveitchik traces this drive to the first narrative of human creation in the Torah, which begins, “And G-d said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image…and they shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and over the animals, the whole earth…” (Genesis 1:26). Rabbi Soloveitchik compares this narrative with the second one (from 2:7), which describes the creation of Adam in the role of attendant for the Garden of Eden rather than as a victorious conqueror of the earth. Adam the first, or dignified man, was created with the desire to conquer and reshape, to build ships, buildings and skyscrapers, and to triumph over nature and mortality. As Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “Dignity of man expressing itself in the awareness of being responsible and of being capable of discharging his responsibility cannot be realized as long as he has not gained mastery over his environment. For life in bondage to insensate elemental forces is a non-responsible and hence an undignified affair.”
Thus, one who lives “in bondage” to pain and a demeaning, debilitating illness would indeed seem to be living without dignity. One could even argue, based on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s interpretation of one of humanity’s most basic missions, that a person who has no dignity no longer has humanity. The most merciful approach would therefore be to restore anthropic homeostasis and some semblance of dignity through euthanasia, rather than to allow him or her to suffer further loss of dignity. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the pursuit of dignity as existing in conflict with humanity’s other role, the pursuit of meaning given to Adam the second (covenantal man), but attributes to contemporary Western society a zealous dedication to the first pursuit at cost to the second.
However, Judaism heavily stresses the value of human life as surpassing even that of human dignity. The Torah states that man was created in the image and likeliness of G-d, allotting to humanity a value beyond mere existence as an organized and highly adapted conglomeration of amino acids. This value of people as G-d’s creations extends to all, regardless of race, religion, or even action. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b) describes G-d’s reaction to the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea during the Exodus: the Israelites, as freed victims, sing in joy and gratitude, but when the angels attempt to join in, G-d silences them with the admonition, “My handiwork drowns in the sea and you would utter song before Me?” If the lives of slave-masters and oppressors were still G-d’s handiwork and creation, deserving of at least of a modicum of mourning and respect, shouldn’t we grant the lives of people who haven’t committed such atrocities the same amount of value and more?
Regarding perceived quality of life and perceived accomplishments, Judaism also makes clear that we have neither the place nor true ability to judge another’s worth, for “how do you know that your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours?” (Sanhedrin 7a). The injunction to not judge another before reaching his or her place (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4) can easily be applied not only to judging another’s actions but to assessing another’s value. One truly can never know what goes on in the mind of another, and lack of physical or emotional independence and initiative does not preclude mental cognition or even the ability to help others better themselves through kindness. Judaism does not recognize the categorization of a person as a burden on another because the burdensome person still possesses infinite value and a unique mission in life.
In no way can I claim to be a judge of someone in the terrible position of considering assisted suicide. But to a Jew who tries to see the reflection of the divine in every person and who believes human life to be sacred, the value of dignity over life is antithetical when dignity is derived from life. As Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, “Judaism is a faith that embraces all of life, and death is a part of life…The principle governing the care of the body immediately following death is the sacredness of man.” In Jewish thought, death and its predecessive processes cannot detract from the inherent holiness of every person. Life without dignity is still life, and the infinite potential of a person cannot (logically) be decreased.
It is undoubtedly emotionally draining and excruciating to watch a beloved family member or friend suffer through a terminal illness, or for the sufferer to endure the anguish and fear of the knowledge that his or her condition may only worsen before death. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to slowly lose control of one’s own body or mind. But labeling sufferers of terminal illness “burdens” or equating humanity with dignity deprives us all of the ability to value something higher than analgesia or our individual selves and experiences.