Brittany Lauren Maynard was an American woman with terminal brain cancer who decided that she would end her own life "when the time seemed right."

Judaism and euthanasia: Can you save a life by taking it?


By Neal Schindler

The recent fuss regarding Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life made me wonder about Jewish views on euthanasia. That’s views, plural; perspectives within Judaism vary widely on this issue, depending on denomination but also other factors. A 2011 article by Baeke, Wils, and Broeckaert, from the “Journal of Religion and Health,” sheds light on Judaism’s approaches to euthanasia as well as the socio-religious context of those approaches.

The article starts by addressing the definition of Jewish identity. The authors write: “Often, it is assumed that because a person is a Jew, he/she adheres to the Jewish religion. S. Brachfeld, however, indicates [in 2000] that only 15-20 percent of all Jews is religious.” For such Jews, “daily life choices are guided by the path God stipulated for them in prescriptions and commandments.” Some non-Jews I talk with about theologically complex issues seem to believe that because I identify as Jewish, I have a pretty good grasp of Torah and Jewish law.

In actuality, Judaism informs how I think and live in broad ways. I value the tradition’s humor, its emphasis on scholarship and intellectualism, and its preference for healthy skepticism over blind faith. But when it comes to circumcision, abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, I may be more heavily influenced by my liberal parents, my hyper-liberal Oberlin College education, and the highly progressive culture of Seattle, where I lived for nine years.

The journal article address Reform views of euthanasia but not Reconstructionist ones; apparently only 2 percent of American Jews identify, like me, as Reconstructionist. In the Reform tradition, according to the authors, when someone is “looking for an answer to a contemporary ethical question, halacha [Jewish law] is addressed. It can offer guidance to individuals but has no binding authority.” This helps explain why my talks with conservative religious folks can lead to confusion.

When Scripture significantly affects your day-to-day choices and strongly held opinions, you’ll keep returning to it when in doubt. In contrast, the Jewish values I most appreciate are already embedded in my way of seeing the world. I’ve internalized them, sometimes without even realizing it, simply because they resonated with me.

In any case, Baeke, Wils, and Broeckaert reach several conclusions in their exploration of Judaism and euthanasia. For instance, they state that if a Jew thinks euthanasia is morally acceptable, he or she is statistically most likely to be on the liberal end of the Jewish spectrum (e.g., Reform). No surprise there.

A more compelling insight is that if a Jew is opposed to euthanasia, that opposition may be based at least partly on Judaism’s powerful focus on the value of every human life. I would assume that anti-euthanasia sentiments among Jews might be additionally informed by the Holocaust’s devastation. (So many lives taken nonconsensually; can we afford to end more voluntarily?). Of course, there’s also the oft-quoted Talmud statement that “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Personally, I see euthanasia, when it takes place under appropriate circumstances, as a form of mercy — a quality that many faith traditions value highly. Several years ago I saw the documentary “How to Die in Oregon,” which examines the effort to legalize euthanasia in that state. The film effectively humanizes the question of whether euthanasia is moral without shying away from the ambiguities inherent in that question. To me, ending a person’s needless suffering, and easing the family’s pain in the process, can be a way of saving someone — and thus, perhaps, the world entire.

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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