Does Judaism Believe in the Right to Die?

Traditionalist understandings of Jewish law work to balance preserving life and alleviating suffering.

Print this page Print this page

3. Judaism rejects the notion of unlimited personal autonomy. Our bodies and our lives are not our own to do with as we will. They are temporary bailments given to us by G-d for a specific purpose and duration which only G-d can terminate and just as we don't have the moral right to kill or harm others, we don't have the moral right to kill, maim, or injure ourselves or to authorize other persons to do those things to us.

4. Judaism rejects the notion that the utilization of advanced technology to sustain life is somehow an interference with G-d's will. Technology and scientific advancement are not man-made but are in themselves gifts of Divine revelation to be used for the benefit of mankind. Thus, the dichotomy that some religions posit between "natural" and "unnatural" ways of treating illness is essentially foreign to Jewish thinking.

These four factors standing alone would surely argue against any "right to die" and would support an absolute affirmative obligation to prolong life at all costs, regardless of pain and indeed regardless of the patient's expressed wishes. This is in the fact the position associated with the eminent Talmudist and bioethicist, Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich of Yeshiva University. It is, however, a decidedly minority position.

Balancing Values

Halakhah, as all well-developed ethical systems, cannot and does not focus on a single moral value to the exclusion of others but seeks to balance, accommodate, and prioritize a multiplicity of ethical concerns. Just as there is a mitzvah (a Divine commandment) to prolong life, there is a mitzvah to alleviate pain and suffering.

But what happens if one value can be achieved only at the expense of another? Consider the patient suffering terminal cancer whose life could be prolonged for no more than six months but only at the cost of painful, debilitating chemotherapy or the elderly stroke victim who falls prey to pneumonia which will kill him swiftly and relatively-painlessly overnight but is easily treatable by antibiotics. May the patient decline the chemotherapy or the antibiotics to achieve a quicker, less painful death or is the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh (preservation of life) so absolute that it admits of no exceptions?

Most rabbinical authorities (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, for one) have sanctioned the patient's right to decline treatment provided a number of very specific conditions were met. First, the patient must be in a terminal condition--that is, whether the treatment is employed or not, the patient is not expected to live beyond a year. Second, the patient suffers unbearable pain and suffering. Third, the patient has indicated that he or she desires not to be treated. In the event the patient is incompetent or unable to communicate his decision, next-of-kin may make such a decision based exclusively on what they feel the patient would have wanted. (Note: This is not based on what they would have wanted if they would have been the patient but rather what this particular patient would actually desire).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Yitzchok A. Breitowitz

Rabbi Yitzchok A. Breitowitz is Rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Torah-Woodside Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland.