The subject of “How to Die in Oregon,” a documentary airing this on HBO, is of special interest to Rabbi Leonard A. Sharzer, a physician and the associate director for bioethics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Directed by Peter D. Richardson, an independent filmmaker, the documentary offers a moving and powerful look at Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a 1994 measure allowing physician-assisted suicide and the first law of its kind, by telling the stories of several people who died under the act. (The documentary is airing on HBO on June 4, 7, 8 and 13, and on HBO2 on June 8 and 14.)
Rabbi Sharzer deals with such controversial issues on a regular basis from his teaching position at JTS’ Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies. So when he heard about the film, which won this year’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, he arranged to have the movie shown recently at JTS. The film doesn’t address the religious issues involved in such end-of-life decisions, but in an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Sharzer certainly did.
Q: What, if anything, do Jewish texts and modern-day responsa say about physician-assisted suicide?
A: Normative Judaism, as a general matter, is opposed to suicide, although there have been exceptions, as in the case of matrydom. Jewish legal writing about physician-assisted suicide is quite new, as discussion of the phenomenon itself is recent. The predominant opinion is negative. There’s the notion that human life is a gift from God, and it’s up to God to decide when it ends, not human beings. … Judaism sees no intrinsic value to suffering at the end of life and encourages physicians to use all means at their disposal to relieve suffering — but not to actually end a life.
Do the Torah and other Jewish texts include examples of people choosing to end their lives rather experiencing an agonizing or painful death?
The classic example in the Bible is the case of King Saul, who found himself wounded in battle and surrounded by the enemy. Fearing torture and degradation, he took his own life. The rabbis go to some length to justify Saul’s action while saying it’s an exception that shouldn’t be considered the rule.
Did seeing the documentary influence your own views on the subject?
I’d say that seeing the movie gave me a much better understanding of the human condition in which this develops. It gives a human face to the issue. It’s not my position to be judgmental of anyone who makes that decision, even if I wouldn’t make that decision for myself and wouldn’t counsel it.
What’s the role of spiritual leaders, such as rabbis, in such decisions? Is it the cleric’s place to veto a decision like this and, if so, under what circumstances?
Spiritual leaders, clergy and pastoral caregivers have in role in help both patients and their families deal with these very difficult questions. I don’t think it’s about a veto. Rather, it’s about helping people who are seeking guidance from within a religious tradition. … It’s clearly a feature of our times that people want to control all aspects of their life and health. The spiritual position is that sometimes you can’t. The contribution of spiritual and religious leaders is to help them deal with areas over which they aren’t able to exert control.
In a statement released by the filmmaker, he says that, surprisingly, the lessons he learned from making the documentary have more to do with living than with dying. What does an issue like this — and, more generally, the idea of death — teach us about life?
One of the lessons is that we don’t live this life as isolated individuals. We live this life as part of a family, as part of a community. We want to live out a sense of values not only for ourselves, but for our families and communities, and impart [our values] to the ones who come after us.