Kevorkian's death has once again revived the ethical conversation surrounding physician-assisted suicide. My friend and classmate, Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, MD, was recently interviewed by The Jewish Week about the Jewish perspective of Physician-Assisted Suicide. The interview was published just days before Kevorkian's death.
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.