Saturday, March 26, 2005

turn turn turn

this is some stream of consciousness musing, or perhaps just a first page of exploration. the question under consideration? well, it began with the case of terri schiavo, who is likely to die in the next few days. on the one hand, i really need to think about how to respond to congregants asking me about the jewish position on such a subject. this means checking out the responsa, which look at jewish law, and attempt to present an ethical position. already, i am swimming in water deeper than any i've dipped into before (and o do i miss my daddy - no more can my first response be to ask him what he thinks and feels). definitions of law, and ethics, and morals ... and how they relate to each other. and that leads to the second part. frank rich wrote in the ny times today:

"At a time when government, culture, science, medicine and the rule of law are all under threat from an emboldened religious minority out to remake America according to its dogma"

the rights of the individual within the rules of the community. what is the best case scenario, i.e., individual views differ, and how does the community make a rule that all must obey, e.g., pro or anti abortion. in the usa, i thought the separation of church and state (synagogue, mosque, temple, etc ... let's not go there just now) was an inspired way to deal with some of those problems. i agree with mr. rich that there is a threat, but am currently at a loss regarding how to deal with it.

back then to the jewish teaching with regard to the current question whether or not terri schiavo should be allowed to die by removing the tubes that feed and hydrate her. i turn to the central conference of american rabbis responsa. before reading this, i had a pretty strong view that if someone has made it clear that if they are brain dead they do not wish to be kept alive, then their wish should be respected. as a chaplain working in a hospital, i have counselled patients interested in creating a living will/advance directive. I know (and just checked it again on the phone yesterday) that this is my mother's wish.

so here's a question: what shall i do when the responsum clearly indicates a position different to the one i currently hold? as a rabbi, a jew and a human, am i required to adapt my thinking? is this a kind of teshuva, where i must turn my stiff stiff neck?

the responsum begins with the affirmation of the inviolability of human life, that it belongs to god, that we have no right to take it and god has the final say in its disposal. we do not "own" our lives. thus, suicide and euthanasia are prohibited.

so what if someone is dying already? the rabbis say that they still deserve all appropriate care. what is appropriate? since the law states that it is forbidden to take any action that will hasten death, and if you do so then it is considered murder, then it would appear that sustenance is required, and pain relief a bit of a grey area since morphine for example may hasten death. but sustenance is required.

at this point, i begin to feel the stiffness of my neck. terri schiavo is not actually terminal. therefore, all the more so should she not have sustenance removed. but this has me agreeing with the bushes and all sorts of people whose beliefs i abhor. ow. my neck is sore.

but i am a reform jew ... and a rabbi ... is there not another way to interpret the teachings? the responsum states:

"As Reform Jews, of course, we consider ourselves free to ascribe "new" Jewish meanings to our texts, to depart from tradition when we think it necessary to secure an essential religious or moral value. In this case, though, we fail to see why we should do so. We see no good reason, first of all, to abandon the traditional Jewish teaching concerning the inestimable value of human life. If the doctrine of life's essential holiness means anything at all, it means that we must stand in reverence before the very fact of life, the gift of God that renders us human. And this reverence does not diminish as human strength declines, for the dying person still possesses life, a life stamped indelibly with the image of God until the moment of death. It is an awesome and awful responsibility we take upon ourselves when we determine to kill a human being, even when our intentions are good and merciful. Such an action is the ultimate arrogance, for it declares that we are masters over the one thing--life itself--that our faith has always taught must be protected against our all-too-human tendency to manipulate, to mutilate, and to destroy."

i do not want to agree with the demonstrators and the religious right and the bushes but ow my neck i don't wish to be arrogant either. note - i am not talking here about stopping treatment, turning off machines, etc. jewish law allows that one may remove an impediment from nature taking its course. i am trying to turn myself towards the acknowledgment that to remove nutrition is to starve someone to death.

i hope the link works, so you may read the rest of the responsum yourself. i am off to think some more, and to get a neck rub!

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