2016-06-30

Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield (Orthodox Jewish)
Vice President of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and co-author of "Embracing Life and Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care."


Given that the Hebrew word for soul is breath (neshamah), if a brain-dead person is still breathing, we would argue that her soul is fully present with her body. That transcends all differences in Judaism. The idea that she is a soulless entity would violate any denominational understanding of the sanctity of who she is. That does not mean that there will be uniformity about what the next steps in her life or her death should be. That's one of the critical things to be aware of. Right now in the religious world, so much energy is going into proving either, her soul has departed, so the hell with her body, or she still has a soul, so keep shoving that paste into her body. Both of these extremes are a terrible mistake, and they are not reflective of Jewish tradition's commitment that we are all human beings body/soul unities and that you don't try to get rid of one to feel good about doing something to the other.

Religious history is littered with examples of religious traditions being willing to separate body from soul, to justify doing terrible things to other people's bodies in order to save their souls. So I think everyone would agree that her soul was with Terri Schiavo while she was alive. There is a Jewish view that upon death, the soul departs the body. Where it goes is a matter of widely divergent views. But neither side should premise its decision about what to do with people on life-support on the basis of whether or not her soul is with her. From a Jewish perspective, it most certainly is and the question is how best to honor the departure of both her body and her soul.

The presence of the soul is dependent upon the presence of bodily life. In some traditions, if the soul is there, you take care of the body, which is basically just a shell. In Jewish tradition, they are equal partners. So as long as the body is there, the soul is there. It's not that you're waiting for one to depart so that you can feel good about killing off the other. Literally, the word for soul is breath (neshamah). And going back to Genesis, the body is created first, by God, and into that divinely made body is infused divine breath, which is the soul. What is powerful about that cosmology is that it establishes for all eternity the equal sacredness of our physical and spiritual selves.

As to those Jews who argue that a brain-dead person has only the nefesh or soul common to all creatures, animal or human, it's a disturbing argument, because it's taken from Yehuda Halevis's argument that only Jews have a neshamah, that even when they're perfectly healthy, gentiles only get a form of soul known as the nefesh, just like cows. It's one of the most racist understandings of ensoulment that we have in Jewish tradition.

The reason why the fight over end-of-life decisions is so nasty is because all spiritual traditions right now are sorely challenged by living in a moment where our technological and medical capacity far outstrip our ethical and spiritual awareness. That's the real challenge here rather than defining souls--to support each other through a moment of learning, when our spiritual and ethical sensitivity needs to catch up to our medical and technological capacity.One of the gifts of polytheistic traditions is their ability to handle ambiguity. We monotheists tend to dig in hardest when we need to open up most. Each of the world's great traditions has within it the ability to argue for letting go and sustaining a brain-dead person. And the real test for people who are advocates for each view within their tradition will be whether they can manage to maintain their advocacy without demeaning people with whom they disagree. The truth is, our traditions are going to be judged much more by that, than by when and how Terri Schiavo and others like her die.

Rabbi David Kraemer (Conservative Jewish)
David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a senior associate at CLAL, is the author of several books, including "The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism."

The rabbis of the Talmudic period believed that souls survive the body after death. They saw death not as a moment, but as a process. Death was assumed to progress over the course of approximately a year and death was over, it was finished, only when the flesh had decayed from the bones. And the way we know all of that is that the bones were reburied at the end of approximately a year and that was actually the ceremony that marked the end of the process of death.

During this entire period, obviously during life, the soul is assumed to be attached to the body, but following the transition toward death, what we would today call death, this was a period during which the soul separated from the body. As long as there was flesh, the soul continued to be somehow enmeshed with the body, though in the body of separation. And only when death was completed would the soul have separated completely. And even at that time, there are stories in the Talmud to suggest that the common assumption was that the soul remained in the vicinity of the bones for the foreseeable future. Now that's a simple description.

The way that would translate into the present situation would be quite obvious. This Judaism, the one I just described, which I believe is not only the Rabbinic Judaism of the ancient world but traditional Judaism over the course of many subsequent centuries, would assume that as long as a body is breathing and a heart is beating, the soul is enmeshed with the body, which is not the same as saying that the soul is united with the body as in the case with a fully living person.

It seems to me that when she went into a vegetative state, Terri Schiavo clearly began the process of death, a significant part of her had died. And therefore, the death process had long since begun in her case but the Jewish perspective would be that the soul remained enmeshed because the process was far from over.

What's the current belief? It depends on whom you ask. What branch of Judaism? What individual within that branch of Judaism? I suspect there are as many answers as there are people answering the question.

There are many Jews today, including not only non-religious Jews but even Reform and Conservative Jews, who would be of the opinion that there is no soul that survives the body.

I think it's true of religious leaders as well. You will find many of those who would follow the description that I just offered.

Here the question would become, how does one define death? Most of the people who have discussed this case, much to my chagrin, actually have not addressed that question. What does one mean by death? One could make the argument that the persistent vegetative state, with no consciousness whatsoever of any kind constitutes death. And if it constitutes death, then Terri Schiavo was already dead for years. In which case, removal of the feeding tube is utterly beside the point.

Now, many people who know the sources will reference the fact that the Talmud, and following the Talmud many subsequent sources, cite breathing as the sign of life. But I think that the extension of that to a broad rule is very tenuous. The reason the rabbis cite breathing is because quite simply that's all they know, given the state of medical science of the time. Does that mean if they knew about brain death they would deny that as a reasonable definition of death? That's not obvious to me.

Looking at contemporary Judaism, I don't think that there is a unitary Conservative Jewish position on the disposition of the soul after death. Conservative Judaism has emphasized matters of practice rather than matters of belief, and this is not one of the matters of belief that this has concentrated on.

Most Jews are uncomfortable with questions like this because with the advent of modernity, Jews became intent on representing Judaism as the most modern faith available. Modernity meant rationality. And Jews then learned the lesson of rationality all too well, which left generations of modern Jews with discomfort in matters such as this. This is all about the Jewish apologia about the modernity of the faith. I can speak of my personal belief, but I can't speak of Conservative Jewish belief on the subject of the soul, because I don't think there is such a thing. Even some of the leadership is squeamish on this subject. Younger Jews are far more interested in what we call "spirituality," including questions about the soul.

Kabir Helminski (Sufi Muslim)
Kabir Helminski is founder and director of the The Threshold Society and a Sufi scholar.

The state of the soul in a brain-dead person would depend on the level of development of that soul. Some people with apparently healthy, functioning brains are nevertheless barely present, living through somewhat automated processes of thinking and feeling. Spiritual development is a process of awakening a capacity for presence that can even detach itself from mental, emotional, and higher structures of perception. Of course, relatively few people develop these capacities.

Theoretically, the soul would have some viability independent of the body but this is hampered when it is saddled with a non-functional nervous system. As long as the soul is "wedded" to a body it benefits or suffers the condition of the nervous system. Keeping a body alive artificially for an indefinite period of time may in fact be an offense against Nature and God, caging the soul.

Starhawk (Pagan)
A witch in the Reclaiming tradition, Starhawk is the author of numerous books, including "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of The Ancient Religion Of The Great Goddess."

First, a disclaimer-as a Pagan and a Witch in the Reclaiming tradition, I want to begin by saying we have no official dogma nor set of approved or agreed upon beliefs. We do have strong traditions, however, and an overall belief that death is a natural part of life, not something to be feared or viewed with horror, but one phase of the soul's journey. Most of us believe in some sort of reincarnation-that there is a soul or spirit that exists independent of the physical body, goes through many lives, each of which is a chance for learning. We don't believe in some ultimate enlightenment that takes us off the wheel-for us, the wheel of life and the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth are sacred.

The body and the brain are the physical vehicle through which the soul can learn and grow. If that vehicle is destroyed, then it is time for the soul to move on and continue its journey. There's no point in artificially prolonging the mechanical functions of the vehicle. And, in fact, there are real dangers that doing so may hold the soul back, keep it trapped in a halfway place-like being caught in a nightmare you can't wake up from. It's possible her soul could simply just go on anyway, but the attachment to the body could be a kind of energetic drain that may hold her back.

So we would say, no, don't artificially prolong a semblance of life. Let go. Let the soul move on to its next set of lessons. Let her walk with the Goddess beneath the apple trees of the Shining Isle, not hang around a hospital ward. And above all, don't let politicians make political capital out of a tragedy like that of Terri Schiavo. When they do, they literally feed on the energy of death for their own benefit. But whatever peoples' opinions, their prayers, and all the genuine caring directed toward a person at the end of life, however, will be healing and protective for her spirit.