Euthanasia and Judaism: Jewish Views of Euthanasia and Suicide




What does Judaism teach about euthanasia?

Euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and all other types of suicide are almost unanimously condemned in Jewish thought, primarily because it is viewed as taking something (a human life) that belongs to God.

Suicide in Jewish Sacred Texts

There are only two mentions of suicide in the Jewish Bible: King Saul (I Samuel 31:4) and David's counselor, Ahitophel (II Samuel 17:23), both of which required the assistance of another person and are thus comparable to euthanasia. In the former case, a soldier takes Saul's life at his request, and King David has the soldier executed for murder.

Other than these two instances, the Hebrew Bible neither addresses nor explicitly condemns the practice of suicide. Suicide is not included in the list of biblical "negative commandments" enumerated by early Jewish thinkers.





Suicide is not addressed in the Talmud, either. However, the Talmud does tell a story that can be seen as applicable to the issue of euthanasia. In this story, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion was being burned alive by the Romans. His pupils urged him to end his suffering quickly by opening his mouth and taking deep breaths of smoke and flames. But he replied, "It is better that He who gave [me my soul] should take it rather than I should cause injury to myself." {1}

The first clear mention of suicide in Jewish writings is in the post-Talmudic book Semachot, which declares:

He who destroys himself consciously (lada-at), we do not engage ourselves with his funeral in any way. We do not tear the garments, and we do not bare the shoulder in mourning, and we do not say eulogies for him; but we do stand in the mourner's row and recite the blessing of the mourners because the latter is for the honor of the living. {2}

Suicide in the History of Judaism

In history, Jews have committed suicide rather than submit to ancient Roman conquerors (most notably at Masada) or crusading knights who intended to force their conversion. {3} These events have received mixed responses by Jewish authorities. Some regard them as examples of heroic martyrdom, but others say that while Jews should always be willing to face martyrdom if necessary, it was wrong for them to take their own lives. {4}

Maimonides, an important medieval Jewish philosopher and rabbi, wrote that there is no "death at the hand of the court" for the crime of suicide, only "death by the hands of Heaven." {5}

Modern Jewish Views on Suicide

Jews do not interpret the fifth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," as referring to suicide. {6} However, in Judaism, the preservation of human life is valued above almost all else. In Jewish law, nearly every other consideration is put second to saving a life. Both fasting and circumcision, for example, are to be postponed if the practice might endanger the individual's health. The premature ending of a person's life is completely counter to this Jewish perspective, so suicide and euthanasia are unequivocally rejected in modern Judaism.

Judaism regards suicide as a criminal act. Someone who commits suicide is considered a murderer. It matters not whether he kills someone else or himself. His soul is not his to extinguish. {7}

Jewish law forbids euthanasia in all forms, and is considered an act of homicide. The life of a person is not "his" - rather, it belongs to the One Who granted that life. It may be therefore be reclaimed only by the true Owner of that life. Despite one's noble intentions, an act of mercy-killing is flagrant intervention into a domain that transcends this world. {8}

Suicide is considered to be a grave sin both because it is a denial that human life is a divine gift and because it constitutes a total defiance of God's will for the individual to live the life-­span allotted to him. {9}

Such acts [of euthanasia] might have been declared legal by the decisions of two different federal appeals courts. They may be permitted by the law of the land. They are not permitted by Judaism. They are against the law of God. {10}

However, Jewish law does allow for the withdrawal of artificial means of survival if the such means will not improve the patient's condition and are the only thing keeping the patient alive. It is also permissible to use life-endangering treatment, such as strong painkillers, even it they hasten death, as long as death is not a certain result of the drugs and the intention is to relieve pain and not to cause death. {11}



References

  1. BBC Religion & Ethics – "Euthanasia: The Jewish View"
  2. Semachot, chapter 2 - faqs.org
  3. "suicide." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  4. MyJewishLearning.com – Louis Jacobs, "Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature," excerpt from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford UP, 1995.
  5. Maimonides, Rotzeah, 2.2-3, cited in MyJewishLearning.com – Louis Jacobs, "Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature," excerpt from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford UP, 1995.
  6. MyJewishLearning.com – Louis Jacobs, "Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature," excerpt from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford UP, 1995.
  7. Sid Bernstein, "Medical Ethics: Stopping a Suicide." Aish.com.
  8. "Ask the Rabbi: The Jewish View on Euthanasia" – ohr.edu
  9. MyJewishLearning.com – Louis Jacobs, "Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature," excerpt from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford UP, 1995.
  10. Sermon given October 18, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block, "A Jewish Perspective on Assisted Suicide." Beth-Elsa.org.
  11. BBC Religion & Ethics – "Euthanasia: The Jewish View"

Further Reading on Jewish Views of Euthanasia