Representing the Jewish position on social issues within interfaith dialogue is often an interesting perspective. For example, the Jewish position on divorce is markedly different from Christianity, especially Catholicism; Judaism has always provided a mechanism for a marriage to end while still recognizing the heartbreak involved. Similarly, Judaism defines abortion in fundamentally different terms than Christianity or Islam. Even according to ancient Jewish law, a fetus has always had a different legal status than its mother, so terminating a pregnancy fell within many acceptable halachic mechanisms.
When it comes to end-of-life issues, however, Judaism differs little from its Abrahamic sister faiths. Jews are not allowed to take their own lives outside of rare exceptions (such as martyrdom), nor are they allowed to take another person’s life other than under unique circumstances (such as self-defence). I find it compelling to see how Judaism can see many profound human issues differently from other faith traditions, while not differing significantly on others.
End-of-life choices are very much at the centre of public debate today. In the wake of Carter v. Canada and Bill C-14, individuals and institutions in Canada are struggling to create an understanding of when and how a person can rightfully choose to end his or her life. In addition to the rights and freedoms of individuals regarding their own lives, the doctors and other medical professionals who may be asked to assist are struggling similarly with questions of deeply held morality and beliefs. Although the court and the legislature have ruled, Canadian society is far from providing a unified answer to the question of Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID).
Although Judaism has ruled clearly over generations that we are not permitted to end our lives for medical reasons, nor assist another to do so, tradition’s answer does not fully address the moral issues patients, families, and caregivers confront in making these heartbreaking choices at the end of life. Surely a loving God does not intend for the righteous to suffer needlessly, no? The very essence of “El Rachum v’Chanun” – a God of mercy and grace–is antithetical to the physical and psychic pain we often watch engulf our loved ones on their journey toward the healing found only in death.
Although the message of the past is clear on the issue of assisted dying, the view of the future is less certain. Many ethics that would have been unimaginable in generations before – such as gender and LGBTQ equality – are mainstream beliefs held by most of the non-orthodox Jewish spectrum. I personally do not see an unobscured path toward defining death in terms compatible with the policies of MAID. But I truly believe in the ability of Jewish tradition to grow in understanding to support even the most poignant of challenges.
I can only pray that our modern Jewish sages will offer meaningful guidance to those confronting the injustice of suffering in the face of inevitable death.
— Rabbi Debra Stahlberg Dressler