“Suicide and the California Bill: The Jewish Perspective”
Just a few weeks ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill legalizing assisted suicide in the state of California. In other words, doctors are now allowed to prescribe medication to patients, knowing full well that the patient will use the medication to overdose, and commit suicide. This issue has created quite a stir in the secular world, and has actually been debated for decades. Secular society as a whole focuses largely on the concept of personal "rights." This focal point creates a highly autonomous attitude, in which every person is simply worried about him or herself. The question becomes, “What can the world do for me,” instead of, “What can I do for the world?” It is therefore not surprising to see such a powerful claim: that people have the "right" to take their own lives if they so decide to do so. After all, every person has the "right" of choice! And doctors, governments, and policy makers have no right to withhold that right from someone who feels like ending their life.
However, as thinking religious Jews, we should have an elevated focus. We understand that there is a greater purpose to our lives, and therefore realize that life is not about rights, but about fulfilling our purpose in this world. Our religion is filled with obligations. This is not because God wants to make our lives difficult. The Rambam explains that the commandments are here to guide us through our lives and help us maximize our potential in this world to become the people we were meant to be. People rarely realize this, and the commandments become seen as a burden and nuisance. On the contrary, being a Jew, and being given the opportunity to live a life full of meaning and purpose are the greatest gifts one can possibly imagine.
Before we enter into our discussion regarding suicide, let us briefly try to understand a key area where Judaism veers from secular thought. R’ Eliyahu Dessler beautifully explains that we often misunderstand the concept of love. We think that we should love those who give to us. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, we often say that we “love” meat. However, if we truly loved the meat, we wouldn’t have killed that lovely cow! In reality, we love ourselves. We love the way the meat makes us feel. The same applies to other people as well. We only love those who make us feel good. This is really only the love of oneself. True love can only result from giving to someone else. The depth behind this idea, is that when we give and devote ourselves to others, we see ourselves in them as well. This elegantly explains the deep love a mother has for her children. The more time you devote yourself to a project, and the more of yourself you invest into it, the more you see yourself reflected within, and the more you love it. This is of course the secret to the most meaningful friendships and marriages.
R’ Dessler further explains that there are two kinds of people in this world. Givers and takers. Takers are those who confront every situation by asking what they can receive and take from everyone else. Givers however are always looking to help and improve the situation at hand. They always look to give themselves to others.
Western culture has become a society of takers. Luckily, you don’t have to look too far to demonstrate this. Just look at the document our nation was founded on: The Bill of "Rights.” People are constantly looking for what they can get and what they can take. This creates a society built on autonomy and individual rights. The Torah however is built on chiyuvim (obligations). We are always looking for what our job and purpose in this world is. At every stage in life, we stop, and ask God: “What am I supposed to do now?” While Judaism certainly recognizes various personal rights, the real question is, where is the focus? For Jews, the focus is on our obligations and purpose in this world.
When it comes to many ethical issues, such as suicide, the secular opinion is almost always rooted in the “taker” mindset. People approach the issue from the vantage point of personal benefit and convenience. In contrast, the Jewish approach is to take a step back and ask: “What does God say about this issue?” As opposed to thinking about what we “want”, we ask: what can we “do?” Having firmly established this fundamental principle, the first thing one must ask is: What it is the Jewish perspective regarding the issue of suicide?
The first set of questions we must deal with are: What is the value of life in halacha, and is suicide ever justified? For example, in worst- case scenarios, a person may be suffering from a terminal illness, depressed, or living a life full of suffering and pain. (To deal with the Halachic issues of the actual act of a doctor giving medication to a patient in the first place requires a lengthier discussion). To understand these issues, we first need to establish whether or not there is in fact any prohibition at all to commit suicide. Perhaps we are actually in control of our own lives. If this is true, then it would seem logical to allow each individual to decide how to live their life; and more importantly, whether or not to live at all. For example, just like the owner of a car can decide that the car is a nuisance, and is justified in discarding it, so too, one should be allowed to decide that his life is more cumbersome than enjoyable, and thus be justified in choosing to end their life. This assumption however is argued upon by many. Many infer from the Rambam (Hilchos Rotzeach 1:4) that we are not the owners of our own lives. The Radvaz (Sanhedrin 18:6) states explicitly that we are not the owners of our bodies or lives, and most poskim quote this li'halacha.
If this is the case, we then need to rethink this issue. If our body really belongs to God, then who are we to decide to discard it? Imagine you gave your friend a car, and told him to guard it for a few weeks. You also told him that he could use it as he pleases in the interim. Three weeks later, when you come back to pick up the car, he tells you that he apologizes, but he is sad to inform you that he didn't really enjoy the way the car rode, so he gave it away. This man is clearly a thief. If so, how is committing suicide any different? God granted each of us a body as a gift. We were put in this world on a mission to become the best person we can possibly be. We were given certain abilities and strengths, and given the opportunity to use those abilities to create ourselves. Furthermore, each moment in this world is of infinite value. So much so, that we are even allowed to violate Shabbos to save chayei sha'ah- as little as a few minutes of life. Each moment is filled with the infinite potential of becoming greater. Each day you can become more than you were the day before. God has given each of us the most precious gift imaginable! So how can one even think of throwing that away?
The commentaries discuss how to categorize the apparent prohibition of suicide. Based on our previous discussion, it shouldn't be surprising that many (Pesikta De'Rav Kahana, Beis Meir, and perhaps the Rambam as well) hold that suicide is in fact retzicha (murder). The logic is quite simple. Just like it's considered murder to kill another person, since you don't own his body, so too, it's murder to kill yourself, since you don't own your body either. Others consider suicide to be a lesser prohibition, perhaps of chavalah (wounding).
It is essential to understand that there are exceptional cases where suicide may be permissible. There is a Halachic debate whether someone is allowed to commit suicide in order to prevent himself from converted to Christianity. It is also important to note that some poskim allow Israeli soldiers to take their own lives when they are captured, in order to prevent themselves from revealing important and dangerous information while being tortured. While there are several other issues that require further discussion, the general consensus is that suicide is fundamentally prohibited. It is only in the most extenuating circumstances that an action with such severe implications would be permitted.
That being said, there is a much deeper idea here which merits discussion. The root of our issue is that people see their challenges and ordeals as a burden, which they cannot bear. While it is true that many of the cases of suicide involve people who are near death, or terminally ill, there are also a significant number of cases of people who refuse to go through the pain or suffering they are experiencing. They therefore decide that it would be better to die now, rather than live through such a painful experience. Such a person hasn’t grasped the true purpose of the challenges we face in life. If you would ask any of the greatest people you admire, they would tell you that the reason they became the person they are today is because of the challenges they faced in the process. Not despite the challenges, but rather because of them! Challenges can have remarkable transformative properties. Some people will just put their life on hold until the ordeal passes. They view their ordeals as a burden, and can't seem to live with them. However, the true purpose of an ordeal is to use it as fuel to become the person you are supposed to become. In retrospect, you will look at the challenges you faced in life, and thank God will all your heart that you went through them. After all, a challenge is just another way of God telling you: "Grow!” A muscle can only grow when it's pushed against resistance. No one can build muscle if they lift weights that are easy to pick up. If you always lift 5-pound weights, you might feel good, and it might look like you're doing something, but in reality, you aren't accomplishing anything. The same applies to each and every one of us as well. The only way to grow is to push against resistance. Once the challenges you face become an opportunity instead of a burden, your life will never be the same.
While an all-encompassing Halachic ruling is beyond the scope of this article, a general point must be made. Whenever secular law clashes with Jewish law regarding the permissibility of an act, Jewish law takes precedence. Therefore, even if secular law seems to grant an individual the right to take his own life, a Jew is held accountable to a higher standard. Examining such controversial issues has tremendous value, as they compel us to grapple with different important values, and clarify what the Jewish perspective is. When all is said and done, we must realize that our way of life comes from the Torah, has always come from the Torah, and will continue to come from the Torah.