Not to a person whose body has been deeply damaged but who remains emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually competent. For in three of the Four Worlds fully, and in one partially, such a person (in Rabbi Boteach's example, Christopher Reeve) was fully alive.
Not to a grandmother who is "the leader of her family," or a businessman who has lost his money, Rabbi Boteach's other examples. For each is fully competent, and may be expressing a momentary sorrow when s/he asks to die. They have the ability to enact their choices wholly within their hands, and it is certainly appropriate to make clear the love that their families and friends have for them and what they would miss if the saddened person were to choose death.
And in these cases, they do have the power to choose, and choose, and keep on choosing.
Terri Schiavo is in none of these circumstances. She expressed her will and her values to her husband when she was fully competent, and now she is unable to carry them out. Unable even to change them.
Given her condition, to castigate her husband for not "choosing life" for her is simplistic even willfully ignorant of Jewish teachings about "life" and the "soul."
In Jewish tradition, Kabbalah teaches that human beings have several sorts and levels of soul. One the "nefesh" is at the level of sheer physical functionality, without emotion, intellect, or spirit. This we share with all life-forms, including vegetation. To exist at only such a level is truly "vegetative."
It is certainly conceivable--indeed, likely--that as Mrs. Schiavo has gone through the traumas of the past 15 years, her other souls have detached themselves from her body and the nefesh alone remains.
If she had said she would want to continue in this fashion, Yes.
But what if she has made clear to her most beloved that she would not? Has made it clear not "casually," as Rabbi Boteach describes it, but in a moment of horror at seeing someone else in that predicament?
I know that I would want my beloved spouse--herself a rabbi--to uphold my deepest convictions about the nature of my life and soul, if I were physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually unable to act upon my values. If all my souls except the thinnest version of my nefesh had already departed from my body.
I would not want some other rabbi to invoke his own values to justify arrogantly thrusting his doctrine and his feeding tube upon me.
Some have argued that in choosing between someone's parents and someone's spouse as to whose word should be trusted to keep faith with a person's own deep choices, one should choose the parents.
Why? The same people usually argue that marriage is a specially blessed state. Whether on sacramental grounds (as in Christianity) or covenantal/contractual grounds (as in Judaism) or on psychological grounds (as in Western culture), to me it seems more reasonable to expect that a spouse chosen consciously by an adult to be a beloved partner is more likely to be deeply in touch with a person's deepest values.
That may especially apply where parents are invoking orthodox religious teaching. For their child may have moved to a more individually rooted spiritual understanding, and have said so to the spouse.
Some rabbis, some priests, some ministers might well join the parents to impose a structured path, dismissing with contempt the spiritual searches that might take the seeker somewhere more fluid.
Of course, this assessment that a spouse's report is the best evidence should be a "rebuttable assumption": Some spouses may betray their partner's values for the sake of self-interest. But in the Schiavo case, there has been a lengthy judicial investigation into exactly the question of whether to believe Mr. Schiavo's assertion of his wife's desires.
As Passover began 20 years ago, my mother, Hannah Hilda Leah Osnowitz Waskow, entered the hospital with failing lungs and crippled breathing. Her lungs had been severely compromised for 40 years, from a bout with tuberculosis when there were no miracle cures for the disease and indeed when her doctor expected her to die within a year.
Instead, for 40 years she had confounded the predictions and fought to live a vigorous and passionate life at that. But as she sat laboring to breathe in the hospital, she told me she was ready to give up.
As her breathing faded away and she faded into semi-consciousness, the hospital without her permission or that of my father, my brother, or myself decided to put her on a respirator.
When the oxygen revived her, she was furious. The machine that was jamming her mouth and throat kept her from speaking. So she wrote, in a straggly but clear hand, "TORTURE!" When we told her that the doctors were refusing to remove the machine and thought it might take three days of artificial breathing to bring her breath to normal, she finally wrote "3 DAYS TOPS TORTURE."
But when the third day arrived, she was no closer to breathing on her own and the doctors were still adamantly against releasing her.
What were we to do?
My father cared passionately both for our mother's life and her companionship in his life, as well as for her values and her independence. He, an inspired teacher, had learned all his life to trust the knowledgeable "experts," and the doctors kept saying she might, given time, be able to breathe on her own. So first he tried to persuade her to keep suffering that torture. But as the time stretched on, he began to doubt the experts.
And he became convinced that she was convinced. So finally he honored her as she demanded to be honored by insisting, with his children's support, that her demand to meet the supervising doctor be honored--and that the doctor listen. Take her seriously.
The doctor met with her and emerged to say; "Mrs. Waskow has made a decision to die." Then, at last, the hospital worked out a way to let it happen.
Finally, my own God-connected response to the Godwrestle that is happening these days in Washington and Florida leads me to ask some questions about the priorities of the Congress as it faces various kinds of impending death.
Would that the president and Congress of the United States were pell-mell rushing back from recess, staying up all night!--to pass the law that would prevent the dying of the next 1,500 American soldiers to match those who have died so far in Iraq, and the next 100,000 Iraqi civilians to match those who have been killed by U.S. military action in the past two years of invasion and occupation.
Would that they were rushing back at midnight to fund a universal health-care system!--that could perhaps save the lives of poverty-stricken people who are dying every moment.
Would that our rabbis, of whatever flavor, were as passionate about these deaths as they claim to be about the last, thin shred of nefesh in a woman whose other souls have, tragically, left her body.