Truths You Can Use


On the most sacred Jewish holiday of the year–Yom Kippur–we literally imagine our own funeral. Men traditional wear a white sash that will also serve as their burial shroud. The purpose is to picture our own death in a way that helps us live more fully.

What if, however, we could not only imagine our death, but choose it. And what if that choice seemed the right and dignified thing to do. This acute question faces those suffering from terminal illness. It has entered the public spotlight in the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal cancer who moved to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state’s death with dignity law. This law allows physicians to prescribe lethal drugs a patient can choose to take.

Amidst the enormous public attention to Brittany’s story, the religious voice has been noticeably absent. Typically strident religious voices would be amongst those to quickly condemn her choice. They were amongst the most vociferous opponents of Oregon’s law when it was implemented in 1997.

Perhaps their absence speaks to a generational shift, or at least a recognition of the complexities of the issues involved.

As a spiritual leader and son and grandson of physicians, I am torn. I believe passionately in the value of life and imperative to seek and give healing. Yet, I have seen the misery and sheer pain felt by so many in the late stages of terminal illness. I have also seen the simple comfort brought by simply having the choice–even if one does not make it–to end one’s life in such conditions.

Jewish tradition has a nuanced approach to this challenge. Thoughtful rabbis and scholars disagree. What is clear, however, is the various factors that matter in making the decision. Here are four of them:

1. Quality of Life:
A Jewish legend tells of a rabbi with terminal illness. He was in great pain. Yet, so long as his students stood and prayed around his bed, however, he could not die. They served as the ancient equivalent of a ventilator.

His housekeeper saw the great pain he was in. She knew the students would never stop praying. So she took a pot and threw it out the window. The shattering sound of its land distracted the students from their prayers, and the rabbi died.

She knew, better than his own students, that the rabbi would not want to live with such pain. Her actions made her the hero of the story.

2. Personal Choice: The Talmud teaches that “Everything is foreseen, but the freedom of choice is given.” In other words, we have free will. This freedom comes with limits. We cannot destroy property or harm others, even if we may the legal right to do so.

Scholars also disagree on how much we freedom we have over own bodies. Some argue the freedom is minimal, since our bodies ultimately belong to God. Others say we are stewards of our bodies, and thus have the freedom to choose how we take care of them.

The bottom line is that no text clearly prohibits a terminal patient from hastening his or her death. We have some choice in the matter.

3. Unforeseen Consequences: The Bible is filled with small deeds leading to big consequences. Joseph’s brothers, for example, sell him to slave traders. This action ultimately results in his becoming Prime Minister of Egypt.

We don’t know all the results of all of our choices. Caution needs to accompany vision in passing laws dealing with life and death.

4. Different Opinions: An old joke says that when when two Jews argue, they express at least three opinions. Our tradition cherishes debate. So does American democracy. No group can claim it has a monopoly on moral truth.

When it comes to end of life dilemmas, views often lose their nuance and perspective. Let’s not let stridency stifle our thoughtfulness. Rather, let our disagreements enhance our empathy.

As my teacher and America’s incoming Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein puts it, “Good moral people can differ. But the one sin from all of our religious traditions is to close our eyes to injustice and close our ears to suffering.”

Tonight begins the Jewish “Festival of Tabernacles.” Known in Hebrew as Sukkot, we spend time in  temporary outdoor dwellings.

The Sukkah Outside My Home

They remind us of the fragility of life our ancestors experienced during their journey across the Sinai Desert.

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity! 

The biblical book we read on Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. Tonight we will chant it in my synagogue.

I confess this book has always mystified me. Ecclesiastes seems to contradict other parts of the Bible.

Consider, for example, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” (1:2) Or “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9)

The first suggests life is meaningless. We are all simply selfish people concerned with our needs. The second suggests the world is static. That leaves little room for God.

So how can we read Ecclesiastes? It’s part of the Bible, so we know it conveys God’s word. How do we make sense of it?

1. Remember what kind of book it is: The meaning of a book depends on the way you read it. We read a poem differently than we read a novel. We read history differently than we read science.

Ecclesiastes is not a theological book. It is more of an autobiographical reflection. It is the reflection of King Solomon, the wisest of Jewish kings.

He is sharing the wisdom from his life experience. He is not telling us what one must believe. He is recounting and reflecting on his life. He is conveying life lessons.

His feelings and observation may resonate with us, even if we do not believe in their literal truth.

There are times when we do feel that life is futile. When an illness strikes a loved one, when we work hard and we fail, when natural disaster strikes.

And there are times when we know that life is not futile. When a new child comes into the world, when we  see righteousness in action and justice prevail.

Ecclesiastes represents one side of life. And life is complex. As the book points out later, in another of its most memorable sections,

“There is a time for every season; A time for every purpose under heaven… A time to love and a time for hate; a time for war and a time for peace; a time to laugh and a time to grieve…” (3:1-8)

2. Remain Humble:  Much of life is outside of our control. We did not choose to be born here. We did not choose our parents. Many of us simply got lucky. And no matter who we are, we face pain, and our lives are limited.

Time and chance, as Ecclesiastes puts it, befall us all. Reminding ourselves of this truth helps us remain grateful for what we have and accept with calmness the difficulties with which life challenges us.

3. Look for God in the tension: The Bible is not always say to decipher. Verses that seem inconsistent may contain a deeper level of congruence. The tension compels us to learn, pray and grow. Life emerges out of that tension.

Think of a battery. It is a positive charge and a negative charge. The tension between those charges creates the spark of energy that gives a device power.

So it is with us. The tension between life as it is and life as it ought to be–between the past and the future, between the world we we inhabit and the one to come–it is that tension that pushes us to live with grace and faith.

Want to more about Sukkot and other holidays? Click here to get a free 1-page guide to all the Jewish Holidays!

Rabbi Gil Steinhauf. Courtesy of Adas Israel Congregation.

Rabbi Gil Steinhauf. Courtesy of Adas Israel Congregation.

Religious leaders are public figures. We live on display. People look at what we drive, what we eat, what we wear.

Unfortunately, sometimes we hide parts of ourselves in order to conform to people’s expectations. We might convey feelings of invulnerability or perfection in public as we struggle in private. Trying to be different people in public and private can be draining. Ultimately, it can be self-destructive. We cannot pretend someone we are not forever.

Yesterday a prominent rabbi ended that  destructive tension by announcing he was gay. He did so in an  loving and thoughtful way, noting his faithful marriage of twenty years and the active support of his wife in making this announcement.

While sad for the dissolution of a marriage and mindful of the range of feelings his announcement will generate, I found myself moved by the rabbi’s honesty, compassion and lack of selfishness. He noted his profound struggle as an adolescent. He described why he had chosen to marry and have children. And he explained how the wholeness and sense of identity for which we all yearn continued to elude him.

(If you want to explore this issue more, click here to discover different Jewish views of Homosexuality.)

Even as he struggled, he did not evade his responsibilities as a husband and father. He embraced them. He reached the point, however, where good parenting and personal happiness demanded honesty and resolution. As he put so beautifully, “Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah, a covenant of family.” 

There is no such thing as a happy divorce. Yes, the decision can be for the benefit of both parents and children, but it still involves pain, sadness and loss. Rabbi Steinlauf seems to acknowledge this truth. I pray that my colleague and his family be blessed with strength and love in the years ahead.

Are you curious? Discover different Jewish views of Homosexuality

end of life

Dr. Ezekiel Emauel, the well-known bioethicist and brother of the mayor of my town, argued recently in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly that 75 is the perfect age to die. After that, he said, most people have little to contribute to society and are a burden rather than a benefit.

I can think of few less Jewish ideas than this. It is not only heartless. It is wrong. My grandfather took me to Israel when he was 81 and changed my life. Each of us probably has similar stories.

When it comes to defining our contribution to the world, what matters most is not how many years we will live but how we use the years we have. To put it in physical terms, what matters most is not how efficiently the heart is beating, but how wide it stretches.

The Heart is All That Matters

If we were to open a Hebrew Torah scroll, we would see that its very last Hebrew letter is Lamed. Then if we rolled it all the way back to the beginning, we would see that its very first letter is Bet. When you put those two letters together, you can the word Lev. Lev means heart.

The heart is literally the end and beginning of the entire Torah. To live by the Torah we live from heart.

Taken to its extreme, Dr. Emanuel’s view distorts our understanding of value. Science relies only on what we see—what we can hold and touch and measure–and that is severely limiting. We can see the size of the new iPhone. We can see the sparkle of a new watch. We can see the color of someone’s hair or the wrinkles on their skin.

But we can’t see the size of our heart. We can’t see the capacity of our dreams. The Jewish sages would agree with the wonderful French writer Antoine de St. Exupery who said, “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The Heart Makes Us Human

What makes the heart so extraordinary is that the inevitably pains of age¬–the slowing down, the loss of skills and energy–does not drown us. The can ennoble us. They can deepen us. They can make us fully alive.

The heart can contain the pain, the brokenness, the frustrations of life alongside its joys, loves, and excitement. The heart can see more clearly than eye. It feels pain more deeply than the nerves. It can heal more fully than the skin. And there are no age limits when it comes to the gifts the heart can give.

It may not always produce new books or let us climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the criteria by which Dr. Emanuel seems to measure the value of life. It may not always let us run a marathon. But it can lift us out of ourselves. It can link us to generations past, present and future.

Poet Philip Larkin said what will survive of us is love. We might also say what lets us survive—physically, emotionally, spiritually, existentially—is the heart. And it can last well past 75.

Can We Choose When To Die? Discover What the Major Religions Believe

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