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A Time To Die

A Time To Die

“Death is the culmination of weeks of puking and dribbling or starving or whining in pain,” Lisa Miller wrote in New York Magazine last week. Or, as Dorothy (Rothschild) Parker mordantly put it: “[I]n all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the American public was transfixed by the story of Brittany Maynard, who sought to seize control of her ending by taking her life earlier this month, surrounded by loving family, in a picture-postcard bedroom in Portland, Ore.

A beautiful woman of 29, Maynard had taught in orphanages in Kathmandu; she’d climbed mountains and dove beneath oceans. She’d also found true love and wanted to start a family, but was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer. She moved to Oregon, one of five states where laws recognize the right to a “death with dignity.” As the disease grew more debilitating, she followed through with her plan to ingest prescribed pills on Nov. 1, because, as she says, her glioblastoma would have killed her anyway and soon, and in a horrific manner, and “being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”

What does Jewish tradition say about any of this? Judaism prohibits suicide, of course. Nor does Jewish law permit the hastening of death. According to the website Judaism 101, “The Talmud states that you may not even move a dying person’s arms if that would shorten his life.”

The half-dozen authorities I contacted, from across the spectrum of Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements, all offer more or less the same perspective on voluntary death: not kosher. If a patient confronting terminal illness were to turn to him for advice, he would be “called upon to show compassion and love,” says Rabbi Mark Washofsky, a professor of Jewish law at the Reform movement’s HUC-JIR/Cincinnati. But you “can’t say that this choice is supported by Jewish tradition.”

From the standpoint of Jewish law, of halacha, “life is precious. We don’t have the option to terminate,” concurs Rabbi Meir Fund, an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn. “There are very strict guidelines about when to withhold further treatment. And these concern an individual who is a far cry from a walking, talking person who God forbid takes her own life.”

Sometimes it’s best not to ask the question, suggests Rabbi David Teusch, a Reconstructionist rabbi, who co-edited “Behoref Hayamim/In the Winter of Life: A Values-Based Jewish Guide for Decision Making at the End of Life.” He says there’s a Yiddish expression, “If you’re going to ask the question, I’ll tell you it’s treif,” not kosher.

It’s the wrong question, according to Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, the long-time director of the National Center for Jewish Healing. We should be asking, “Where is the community-assisted living?” Where is the network for those dealing with life-threatening illness?

And yet, at least one rabbi views the growing phenomenon of “death with dignity” through a different lens. Anson Laytner, a self-described “Conserva-Reform rabbi” and resident of Seattle, had been ruminating on the issue for years, but focused his thoughts four years ago, when his wife, Merrily, learned that her ovarian cancer had returned. This time, chemotherapy didn’t diminish the cancer. She signed up for hospice. She started to talk about “meeting death on her own terms.” She started to think about availing herself of Washington state’s new law.

Rabbi Laytner reasoned that according to Jewish tradition, you’re neither supposed to prolong dying or hasten death. Since patients have already prolonged dying by undergoing various means of treatments, it would be logical to counterbalance these interventions, in Laytner’s view. Merrily received the necessary approvals from physicians, and placed a brown paper bag containing the lethal pills by her bedside.

And she experienced tremendous relief. She wasn’t “at the whim of her failing body,” recalls the rabbi. Within weeks, though, her health rapidly declined, and she began transitioning into a mindset of dying. Morphine largely arrested her pain, and having control over her body “didn’t matter in the same way,” says Rabbi Laytner. By law, patients must take the capsules themselves. “By the time she was too weak to take it herself, she didn’t care, which was kind of beautiful,” says the rabbi. The paper bag stayed on the nightstand, a reminder of her right to choose.

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. Email:

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