Like the mental state of the incapacitated woman at its center, the Schiavo Saga doesn't lend itself to a simple label. On one level it exists as a family feud; on another, as a political football; and on yet another as a cultural touchstone.

But regardless of the motivations of the husband or parents of Terri Schiavo, who has now died of court-ordered dehydration, regardless of the propriety of congressional involvement in the matter and regardless of what reactions to the case might or might not say about America as a society, the tumult has also been a teaching moment, an opportunity for us all to ponder nothing less than the meaning of life. And Judaism, here as always, has much to teach. Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not always insist that life be maintained. When, for instance, a person is in the state called "goseis"--"moribund [and] in imminent danger of death," in Rabbi J.David Bleich's words, Judaism forbids intercessions that will prolong suffering, although the active removal of connected life-support systems is another matter entirely. And there are times when even a healthy Jewish person is required by halacha to forfeit his or her life--most famously, when preserving life would entail the performance of an act of idol-worship, murder, or sexual immorality.

However, when an individual is incapacitated, even severely, but clearly alive, Judaism considers that life to possess no less value than that it possessed before it was compromised. Even a previously expressed desire to be killed if in such a state, while of considerable import in American law, carries no halachic weight at all. Although there are those who like to assert otherwise, the Jewish high ideal is not autonomy but responsibility.

It is not hard to make a slippery slope case here. In the Netherlands, where patients in compromised states have been "mercy-killed" for years by doctors, today 16-year-olds with "emotional pain" can legally enlist medical help in committing suicide (a 15-year-old requires parental consent).

And there is already at least scholarly slip-sliding in our own country, like the pronouncements of renowned ethicist Professor Peter Singer of Princeton, who not only advocates the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly but has made the case as well for the dispatching of babies who are severely disabled. Such children, he has written, are "neither rational nor self-conscious" and so "the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals... must apply here, too." Or, as he more bluntly puts it, "The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee."

The Jewish view, though, of lives like Terry Schiavo's is, in the end, not dependent on slopes or slippage. According to halacha, withholding food and water from a person in a "persistent vegetative state" is, in and of itself, a grave wrong. Judaism invests human life--no matter how limited it may seem--with inherent, infinite meaning.

It is not surprising that the incapacitated (or, as in Dutch law, even the very despondent) are seen in our times as somehow less worthy of the protections we offer more active people. Ours is a culture, after all, where human worth is often measured by intellectual prowess or mercantile skills--even by things like youth or physical beauty, or, for that matter, the capacity to convincingly impersonate a real or fictional character, or to strongly and accurately hit, kick or throw a ball.

But the true value of men and women lies elsewhere entirely, in their potential to do good things--to prepare, in fact, for an existence beyond the one we know--and in their meaning to the rest of us. When that idea--self-evident to some, objectionable to others--is internalized, a very different sensibility emerges.

Basketball or dancing may no longer be options in the confines of a hospital bed, and even tending to one's most basic physical needs may be impossible without help. But are acts of sheer will--like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, or prayer--any harder to accomplish, or any less meaningful? Are they compromised in any way by tangles of tubes and monitors?

Not even consciousness, at least as medically defined, need hinder what humanly matters most. We choose to take only what registers on an EEG or acts of communication as evidence of being meaningfully conscious, of the ability to think and choose, and then proceed to conclude that, in the absence of such evidence, those abilities must no longer exist--without a thought (at least a conscious one) of the immense tautology we have embraced.

We do not know, cannot know, when a human being is truly incapacitated--when his or her soul is no longer functioning. Only when a heart has stopped beating can we be certain that life in its truest sense has ended. And so hastening or abetting the death of even a physically or psychologically compromised human being is, at least in the eyes of Judaism, no less an abortion of meaningful life than gunning down a healthy one.

The attitude regarding human life that characterizes decisions like the one Terry Schaivo's husband made is, unfortunately, one toward which much of contemporary Western culture is slouching. It is spoken of by sophisticates as "progressive," and indeed represents a progression of sorts, away from the Jewish religious tradition that is the bedrock of what we call morality and ethics. The degree to which we manage to check that progression will be the degree to which we demonstrate that we truly understand what it means to be human.
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