Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 10 December 2011 / 13 Kislev 5772

Mercy Killing

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Mark

Dear Rabbi,

I was wondering about euthanasia and Jewish law. I know that it’s wrong to murder, but this is an act of mercy, and wouldn’t euthanasia be like the verse that says to “love the your fellow person as yourself”?

Dear Mark,

You are correct in your assumption that we are commanded to love another person. But, of course, this care and concern for others must be expressed in a manner that is not contrary to Jewish law.

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 G-d, the One who granted that life. Therefore, only the true Owner of that life may reclaim it at the time and under the circumstances that He wills. Despite one’s noble intentions, an act of mercy killing is flagrant intervention into a domain that transcends this world.

One source in the Torah for this prohibition is found in the Book of Genesis (9:5) in a verse relating to murder:

“But the blood of your lives [spilled by murder] will I require [accountability from the murderer]…from the hand of man, from the hand of a person’s brother, will I require [punishment for taking] the life of man.”

The additional phrase “from the hand of a person’s brother”, after having already stated “from the hand of man”, is redundant. The author of the book HaKtav v’haKaballah explains that this verse refers to a prohibition against euthanasia. Although murder is the opposite of brotherly love, one might think that euthanasia is a permitted expression of brotherly love. This verse declares in no uncertain terms that this particular form of “brotherly love” is in fact equivalent to murder.

This does not mean that one should be lax about relieving the suffering person’s pain. Elimination of suffering is a commendable goal. In fact, this may permit even “aggressive” treatment of pain to a degree that is not standard medical practice. For example, heroin-like medications may perhaps be acceptable according to Jewish law, in spite of the risk of addiction. It would have to be legal, however, by civil law.

There are other considerations that are beyond the scope of this column, such as passive/active intervention, prayer for a suffering person’s death, and the actual halachic definition, and corresponding treatment, of a dying patient. These and other related topics may be further studied in the sources listed below.

Sources:

  • Commentaries on Genesis 9:5
  • HaKtav v’haKaballah
  • Judaism and Healing, J. David Bleich, Ktav Publishing House
  • Jewish Bio-Ethics, “The Jewish Attitude Towards Euthanasia”, by Fred Posner, Fred Posner and J. David Bleich, Sanhedrin Press
  • Jewish Ethics and Halacha for Our Time, “Euthanasia”, Basil F. Herring, Ktav Publishing
  • Practical Medical Halacha, “Euthanasia”, Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, Feldheim Publishing
  • Medical Halacha for Everyone, “Euthanasia or Mercy Killing”, Abraham S. Abraham, Feldheim Publishing

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