The Limits of our Wills

This week I was able to make some choices. As a newly minted American I could make the choice to vote (finally!). As a voter I could choose between candidates and parties for the House and Senate.

This week we were able to make some choices. We could examine the issues that were important to us and our country – economic recovery, abortion rights, equality, jobs, foreign policy – and help shape the direction our country would take on such issues.

This week we were witness to choices. We could hear the summation of people’s opinions on the political direction of the United States. We were able to watch as different states chose leadership that was Democratic or Republican.

We could let our will and wills be known.

We also learned of the will of one woman’s anticipated choice.

Brittany Maynard, a young woman with an aggressive and terrible form of terminal brain cancer, was an advocate of the death with dignity law. She was very public about her choice to take her own life “when the time seemed right”. Brittany moved her family from California to Oregon, where such a choice was legal. Her story of death and dying has moved many of us. This week, she took medication which ended her life just short of her 30th birthday.[i]

She let her will be known.

Many of us will have varying views on the outcome of the elections as well as Brittany Maynard’s right to die with dignity. What specifically does Judaism have to say about the specific choice of taking one’s own life in the face of an aggressive and terminal disease? Is this permissible?

Let us begin to untangle the web of theological thought:-

Free will exists in Judaism. But it co-exists in tandem with God’s plan. How so? A bit of background:

The Bible understands that the whole of our natural world is ruled by God’s plan. Think about the bible you know: God brings a flood, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, God decided whether the Israelites will win or lose wars. Within this same system, we can make choices for which we are culpable. Hence the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” of the commandments of the Bible.

Rabbi Akiva summarized the paradox with these words: “..everything is forseen [by God], yet humanity has the capacity to choose freely.”[ii] The Medieval Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas elaborated that while we have the ability to choose between alternatives, there is an underlying cause to all of existence. [iii] In other words, there is an ultimate plan and destiny. Yet how we traverse the paths and by-ways to the final destination, depends on the choices we as humans make along the way.

This theology of “relative free will” impacts the Jewish view on euthanasia. Several case studies are reiterated in the discussion in Judaism on whether we have the right, or someone has the right, to choose the time of our own death. These case studies provide us a window into some of the thoughts that are hotly debated on the issue.

Story Number One: Rabbi Judah the Prince is dying and is suffering greatly. His rabbinic friends insist on ceaseless prayer which is keeping him artificially alive. His servant woman, noting her master’s suffering, goes up to the roof of the house and throws down a large earthenware jar, the crash interrupting the prayer allowing Rabbi Judah to die.[iv]

This story is used as justification  to withdraw a means that artificially prolongs a life. Similarly we are taught that if the chopping of wood provides a meditational focus that is keeping someone who is near death from dying, or salt on a tongue provides a focus keeping someone alive, these artificial means can be withdrawn.[v]

This story and Jewish tradition operates in agreement with the principle of “relative free will”. It allows free will in removing an impediment to death, but ultimately God is the one who determines the time of death. Death is not a human choice to make. As Maimonides taught:”A dying person is considered to be alive in every respect… whoever touches him is a murderer… whoever closes his eyes as he dies is a murderer…”[vi]

While not completely analogous to Brittany Maynard’s story, the lesson of this case study should be taken into consideration. In Judaism, impediments to death occurring can be removed, but taking a life pro-actively would be forbidden and even classed as murder.

Story Number Two speaks about one who is in great mental and physical agony. It is the story of King Saul on Mount Gilboa. The first King of Israel suffers a defeat at Mount Gilboa at the hands of Israel’s enemy  the Philistines. In conflicting accounts King Saul asks his arms bearer or an Amelekite to kill him. Ultimately, Saul  himself, physically injured, humiliated and defeated falls on his own sword. [vii] In the Amalekite account, King David punishes the Amelekite for the death of Saul.

Tradition teaches in relation to these texts on King Saul’s death, that one may not ask for death if they are in agony. However, if they are to take their life under such circumstances, then that death is to be forgiven.

There is some debate over using this story as general case law. At a reform rabbinic symposium in 1948, Dr. Samuel Atlas suggests that the dilemma using  this tale as precedent, rests on the fact that Saul is a King. Thus, this is in its essence a politically story.[viii] King Saul died by his own sword to prevent a desecration of the divine name in Israel.[ix] Kings are not commoners and are exceptions because of their national status.

So the question arises – can we ascertain a ruling from this story regarding a commoner like Brittany Maynard? How well do these scenarios mesh?

Unlike King Saul, Brittany Maynard did not actually “fall on her own sword.”  She actively chooses her time of death by moving to a state where medications were available for her to “die with dignity”.  Someone provided her with those medications. Both King Saul and Brittany Maynard took their own lives, and the mainstream discussion around the biblical precedent would have us forgive Brittany Maynard like we did King Saul. Like King Saul’s death, Brittany Maynard’s public dyinghas a political agenda. His was the dignity of state. Hers was the dignity of the terminally ill. Are they equivalent? Finally, just as King Saul’s death becomes hotly debated in subsequent Jewish literature, Brittany Maynard’s death is now hotly debated in press and public.

The stories do not quite interconnect, but they both are filled with similar moral dilemmas.

Story Number Three comes from our martyrology . Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon is wrapped in a Torah scroll and covered with woolen tufts soaked in water.  He is being burned slowly and torturously. His disciples beg him to hasten his own dying by opening his mouth and letting the fire in. He refuses to hasten death since that choice is the preserve of God. When the executioner sees Rabbi Hanina’s piety, he offers to hasten death by removing the wet wool if he, the executioner, is promised ultimate redemption. The Rabbi makes this assurance that the executioner’s soul will be redeemed. The executioner removes the woolen tufts over Rabbi Hanina’s heart, and the rabbi’s soul departs.[x]

In this case the rabbi will not hasten his own painful death even though it is excruciating. In circumstances as excruciating as the painful disease that Brittany Maynard was facing. But easing his death is permitted by someone other than himself.

God’s plan, teaches this story, does not permit us to personally hasten our own death, even underpainful circumstances,  for there is a greater plan beyond our understanding at work here. But if someone else removes impediments to our passing out of compassion, then they are to be forgiven. It seems that our Jewish tradition would have a difficult time with Brittany Maynard’s choice to take her life in her own hands.

These cases are just a window into the complicated literature and debate around euthanasia in Judaism. Many theological questions are asked. Can one take one’s own life? What does quality of life mean? Is quality of life a right? If illness and dying are part of our natural life experience, who are we to hasten life experiences? Who is to say that pain itself is not dignified? Is it ethical to hasten death as a consequence of relieving pain?

There is much back and forth, debate, angst and passion. For these questions are not easy ones to ask or answer. The traditional questions are the ones we still hotly debate today. The old is the new.

Like our forebears and our tradition, we too now engage in the struggle between the tension of free will to act in a world of ultimate destiny. It has resurfaced yet again because of the choice and act of one young woman. It is made real by this current debate on euthanasia.

As we wrestle each personally with the questions that  Brittany Maynard’s death has raised nationally and personally, let us remember that our Judaism has much to teach us on this question. These are not new questions but ancient ones. The past has much to teach us and can inform our present. Let Jewish wisdom be part of our informed choice, enlighten or limit our free will, whatever side of the current discussion we gravitate towards.


[ii] M. Avot 3:15

[iii] David Winston “Free Will” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (NY: The Free Press, 1972), p. 273

[iv] Ketubot 104a

[v] Moses Isserles quoted in “Allowing a Terminal Patient to Die”, American Reform Responsa #77.

[vi] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avel, 4:5

[vii] I Samuel 31:3-4 and II Samuel 1:5-11

[viii] “Euthanasia” Responsa 78 in American Reform Responsa

[ix] Sefer Hasidim, Chapter 723

[x] Avodah Zarah 18a

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