Congregation B'nai Israel

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Jewish Perspective on End of Life Issues

What is the Jewish perspective on “End of Life” issues?

From a Jewish perspective, we must balance a number of conflicting values. On the one hand, we have inherited a tradition that makes life a supreme value. Our ancestors, on the other hand, never had to face the medical and financial outcomes of extending life so much further than they ever imagined through current interventions.

As Americans live longer, millions, along with their families and health professionals, face difficult questions about their medical care. Often the concerns are not only on the complications of aging, but also on the reality of living with chronic or terminal illness. Yet, as the options in medical technology increase, the issues become more complex: Where is the line between “quality of life” and longer life?

How should we weigh the rabbinic principle that “the Torah takes pity on Israel’s financial resources” against the Jewish quest for life and health? For society as a whole, how do we balance these medical concerns with all the other things that, according to the Talmud, a community must provide?

No traditional Jewish text will solve this problem for us, for these are new times, when health care is both more effective and more expensive than ever before. We will have to break new ground in formulating a realistic resolution of these issues, one grounded in Jewish sources and principles, but one that is also responsive to the new context of medicine in our time.

One thing is for sure: we need to make decisions in the contexts of our relationships – with family members and loved ones, along with the crucial support of our physicians and caretakers – and pursue a holistic approach to the individual, addressing the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of patients.

Specific issues confronting families are too complex to rectify in a few short paragraphs, but the more we learn about healing, surviving and dying, the more we recognize the magnitude of dignity, control, relationships, fear, denial, compassion, suffering and making peace.

Rabbi Tvi Blanchard, co-author of Embracing Life & Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care (CLAL 2003), encourages us to look at how values in Jewish wisdom – living lives of purpose, meaning and integrity – can help patients have more complete visions of themselves. Indeed, healing can take place, even when there is no cure, when we create supportive relationships, increase mindful awareness and gain compassion.