A Beautiful Life; Not, G-d Forbid, Death

Mercy killing, euphemistically called euthanasia, has once again reared its ugly head. Only this time, it has been dressed up to look beautiful. That, of course, makes it all the more dangerous and we dare not ignore it in its new clothing.

Shlomo Hamelech referred to this masquerade as being like “a golden ring in the snout of a pig” (Mishlei 11:22). Rabbeinu Yonah explains that this is a warning that we not become dazzled by the shiny gold while forgetting its swinish setting.

Just before Shavuos, the New York Times (May 28, 2017) featured an extraordinarily lengthy (six pages) front-page exposition of the “Death and Life of John Shields.” Last June, the Canadian government legalized what it termed “medical assistance in dying.” Mr. Shields’ doctor, Stefanie Green, a Jewish physician who “had specialized in maternity and newborn care with a side practice in circumcisions,” thereupon agreed to administer a lethal injection, allowing him “to die swiftly and peacefully,” alleviating the pain of the incurable illness that afflicted him. Dr. Green had already presided over more than 35 of these “choreographed deaths.” Somewhat ironically, Dr. Green sees a connection between her bringing children into the world and ending lives by request.

“Birth and death, deliveries in and out – I find it very transferable,” she calmly asserts.

To her, the scheduled death is “a beautiful event.” She is willing to let her “patients” decide the tone and ambience of their final moments. Unlike the man who had “got dressed in his amateur clown costume, complete with wig and red nose” and “died telling her jokes,” Mr. Shields had other plans. A former Catholic priest and social worker, Mr. Shields was given several injections, died thirteen minutes after the first one, and was laid out in his “wild and beautiful” garden “just as he had loved it.”

With the word “beautiful” being uttered so often, one could forget for a moment that, after all was said and done, this was murder. Legal, to be sure, with the consent of all, but murder nevertheless. The medical disguise is brilliant, perhaps even logical – the gold blinding our vision so that we momentarily forget that someone has been killed. Surely, this was the purpose of so many words in a major newspaper, written lyrically and compellingly, to persuade and convince us that this is literally the way to go. In an age when there is so little respect for the value of life, we have been moving ever closer to a time when lives can be legally snuffed out with just a nod to pain or fear of the future. It may therefore be time for us, as Torah Jews, to review one of our most basic tenets, our reverence for life itself.

The premise of all the new legislation allowing mercy killing is the widely cherished thought that a human being owns his body. Just as he may dispose of his wealth and material possessions as he sees fit, so may he do what he pleases with his physical self, as long as it doesn’t harm someone else. This illusion of total autonomy and self-determination is rooted in man’s yearning for independence, even from his Creator. Yet, our own ironclad tradition holds firmly that man does not in fact own his body.

If anything, one of the major poskim (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Volume 5, Hilchos Nizkei Haguf, section 4) rules unequivocally that “ain l’adam reshus al gufo klal – man has no rights over his own body.” The context of this rule was that “one has no right to strike someone even if he has his permission to do so.” However, it is clear that the point being made is that even when the law is formulated as a “prohibition” to hurt someone (Bava Kama 90b, Choshen Mishpat 420:31), it is based upon the legal fact that our body is not ours, but the Creator’s. We recite this credo often during the Selichos liturgy: “haneshama loch vehaguf sheloch – the soul is yours and the body, too, belongs to You.” Although some authorities have been cited as allowing someone to hit another if granted permission (see Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s Le’ohr Hahalacha, pages 410-419), virtually no such posek allows a life to be taken.

Although these columns usually avoid detailed halachic analysis, I beg my reader’s indulgence for a moment, since this subject can only be understood in light of time-honored Jewish law.

Two stories are generally cited that seem to present conflicting views of mercy killing, one Biblical, one from Talmudic times. Shaul Hamelech was overtaken by Philistine archers and was terrified of being tortured to death. He said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and stab me with it” (Shmuel I 31:4). The armor-bearer did not consent, so Shaul fell on his own sword. Later (Shmuel II 1:10), when the son of an Amalekite convert admitted to “ending [Shaul’s] life,” Dovid Hamelech had him executed for the deed. Here it seems clear that one who kills someone, even by his own request, with the best of intentions to spare him further suffering, has committed murder and is executed for the deed.

Yet, another famous story seems to point in the opposite direction. The great Tanna Rav Chananya ben Tradyon was being burnt at the stake for teaching Torah against the edict of the Roman government. Although Rav Chananya had refused his students’ suggestion that he open his mouth to the flames to hasten his death and reduce his suffering, he refused, declaring that only “He Who had given life” could take it away. Nevertheless, when the executioner himself, who seemed to have become overcome with remorse, offered to add more flames and remove the moistened tufts of wool that were prolonging Rav Chananya’s agony, he agreed. Eventually, the executioner jumped into the flames himself and a heavenly voice rang out that Rav Chananya and his executioner would immediately enter the World to Come. Now surely it would seem that this particular act of mercy killing was sanctioned and even rewarded. Many halachic works have offered solutions to this apparently glaring conflict.

To be sure, some (see Rav Shmuel Boruch Werona, Torah Shebaal Peh Journal, 5736, pages 38-45) have suggested that non-Jews, utilizing the guidelines of the Seven Noachide Laws, may end a life if the suffering victim so desires, but Jews, following the Torah’s stricter guidelines, may not do so. However, the majority of poskim (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 339:1 with Bais Lechem Yehudah and Rav Yisroel M. Lau, Torah Shebaal Peh 5744, pages 58-63) answer with some variations that Rav Chananya’s executioner actually only removed an impediment to death (the tufts of wool), but did not add the flames. He therefore did not actively end the Tanna’s life; he merely allowed death to take its course. However, the Ger Amaleiki who killed Shaul and Dr. Green committed murder in the most direct of manners, which is forbidden to all.

What is clear beyond a doubt is that the Torah does not allow sacred life to be shortened, let alone summarily ended. Removing all the “beautiful” trappings and false kindness, we are left with the simple act of murder. Surely, the Nazis, too, justified to themselves all of their brutal acts of wanton murder against our people and millions of innocents whom they declared to be unworthy of life. Beside all the legal and even halachic discussion, the slippery slope here is profoundly dangerous and unworthy of being granted the imprimatur of intellectual discussion, let alone being called “beautiful.”

Many years ago, when abortion was beginning to be sanctioned, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l stood up in Monsey and gave an impassioned speech condemning the practice. When asked why he was bothering, since it did not affect our community, he answered that eventually we are all touched by societal changes and must react before the calamity actually permeates our shores directly.

This scourge of outright murder, clearly presented sympathetically by a major newspaper, must be rejected in the strongest terms, so that, G-d willing, we never find ourselves in the position of shetika kehoda’ah – acquiescence by silence – and we may hold our heads up high as the people who revere life and allow only the Creator to end it when the time comes.

May we all have arichas yomim veshonim, with good health granted by our benevolent Father in heaven in the merit of our simchas hachaim, our love of the truly beautiful life He has granted us.