The Pagan Impulses behind the “Right-to-Die” Movement

November 30, 2017 | Mitchell Rocklin
About the author: Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin is the academic director and dean of Tikvah’s new Lobel Center for Jewish Classical Education. He is also director of the Jewish classical education concentration track at the University of Dallas.

The much-publicized case of Charlie Gard—an infant afflicted by a rare fatal disorder whose parents were prevented by a British court from taking him to the U.S. for experimental treatment—and the rapid expansion of euthanasia in the Low Countries, where it is routinely administered to the mentally ill, point to the risks of legalizing “physician-assisted suicide.” Assessing the attitudes underlying the “right-to-die” movement, and the inroads these attitudes have already made in the American medical system, Mitchell Rocklin argues that Jews should refrain from joining in:

Having worked as members of the clergy at healthcare facilities for years, my colleagues and I have witnessed a genuine “culture of death,” wherein too many of those who ought to be healers instead become agents of death. Some are well-meaning, seeking to help patients avoid what they believe to be needless suffering. Others may be motivated by financial considerations, such as saving medical facilities money. Whatever the rationale, too many of us have witnessed premature hospice visits and recommendations to withhold treatments. . . .

Pagans, including ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans, all believed death with honor—usually typified by death in battle—to be far superior to ordinary death. How people died was far more important than how they lived. Not so for Judaism, which emphasized that the content of life is what matters, and that even martyrdom is characterized by sacrificial dedication rather than glory. . .

This difference of opinion had major ramifications. For instance, while Romans commonly glorified suicide, Jews vehemently opposed shortening a life. . . . The “death-with-dignity” movement seeks to fulfill an age-old pagan impulse: to control the circumstances of death to give it meaning. This is, however, an attempt to escape what Judaism teaches us: that there can be no death with dignity, only life with dignity. . . . To argue otherwise is a fatal conceit for true human dignity, resulting in undervaluing the importance of living every moment of life to its fullest.

This is not to minimize the existence of heartrending cases involving pain and suffering. But attempts to end pain do not justify creating a legal regime to enlist the help of healers in support of those who resort to extreme measures.

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