Tisha b’Av – the low point of the Jewish year and lessons we can learn

On Tisha b’Av we remember and  commemorate the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. A culmination of a three week period of mourning, which begins with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the First Temple.   In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”

It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors.  Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.

We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple is problematic, I find the only way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other. This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have seven weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle. We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.

Racism- the continuing struggle against ‘othering’: a talk at Stand up to Racism 1.3.16

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish born Rabbi who became one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, marched arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr at Selma in 1965. Afterwards he wrote to him – “When I marched in Selma, I felt that my feet were praying”

heschel at selma


The three Selma to Montgomery marches were a non-violent way of highlighting racial injustice in the South of the USA, and contributed to the Voting Rights Act being passed the same year.

Rabbi Heschel wrote deeply and frequently about religion and race, which he felt were antithetical positions. He wrote that “to act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is the beloved child of God. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.” Such physical and visceral language about racism was reflected in his actions. Already nearing 60 years of age, he marched proudly, putting his body in the firing line for a principle he believed in deeply.

In a lecture given two years earlier he told his audience of Jews and Christians bluntly (National Conference of Christians and Jews on Religion and Race, 14 January 1963.) that

“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

He was speaking from a deep understanding of Jewish texts. And he was speaking from a position of recognising the commonality of all human beings. When we categorise people by race we stop seeing the uniqueness of each human person. And the greatest and most redemptive human quality is to have kinship, to build relationship with others with empathy and with respect. Heschel brought a wonderful insight to the biblical story of creation. He pointed out that the text speaks of the many kinds of plants and of animals created by God, that each one was different from the others, each one was to become the progenitor of its own species. And then he pointed out that in this text the creation of the human being was very different. There were no parallel species of different colours or characteristics, genders or races. There was one human being – the ‘Adam’, made from the ground itself, fashioned in the image of God. And that human being became the progenitor of all the diverse expressions of humankind. The ur-ancestor from whom we all descend – our humanity is bound up with each other, it has to be, and if we choose to divide ourselves and to hate “the other” then truly we are causing the maximum amount of cruelty for the minimum of thinking.

Bible did not notice race per se. In the ancient world right up to the time of the Greeks and the Romans, race was not the issue that society organised around – but all of the ancient world did notice whether someone was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Whether they were citizens or aliens, whether they came from ‘other places’ or they came from ‘here’. There was always a tendency to try to create a hierarchy, where “we” are the best and “they” are inferior. Hence the power of the biblical text which is consciously addressing these attempts to order humanity by inherent superiority, and which is working to refute it. Later (rabbinic) texts take on the debate. Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) includes the phrase “[Only a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. And.. [Only a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”

While the ancient Roman and Greek worlds were defining people according to geography (from here good/ not from here bad) or status (in the community good/ out of the community bad) the Rabbis of the Midrash were specifically choosing to see all human beings from wherever they came as of equal value. And especially they took on the argument from geography, making explicit that from where someone originated was of no importance in ascribing their value.   Rabbi Meir (2nd century) taught that God made Adam from the dust gathered from the whole world; and Rav (3rd century says): “His head was made of earth from the Eretz Israel; his main body formed from the dust of Babylon; and the various limbs were each fashioned with earth from different lands” .

When we look historically we can see again and again that as the host community sought to belittle and even humiliate people it saw as outsiders or foreigners, be they marked by accent or, skin colour or culture, the force of religion was pitching in the other direction. So the actions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Warsaw born scion of an orthodox Hasidic family, in the southern states of America in 1965, were a natural progression of Jewish tradition that begins in bible and speaks out against the human habit of ‘othering’ and of creating a hierarchy whereby some are dominant and others are subordinate, where some have more value than others.

This week in synagogues all over the world there is an extra Torah reading – Shabbat Shekalim tells of the census in the wilderness and reminds the present community of the obligation to share the costs of communal resources. The title – the Sabbath of the Shekel – comes about because the census is taken by everyone giving a half-shekel coin, and these, not the people, are what is counted. There are many reasons offered for this way of counting, but one of my favourites is that it shows that while different individuals may have a different nett worth financially, every person is of the same value before God. And why a half shekel coin rather than a full shekel? Because no one person is complete on their own, each of us relies on others to complete us.

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr both men understood importance of these teachings. Every human being is of infinite and equal value, every human being needs others to help them reach their full potential. Racism causes us to forget both of these lessons, but they remain as true as ever they did, and it is up to us to keep teaching them in the way we live our lives.


From a talk given at Stand up to Racism event, Goldsmith College 1/3/16

Vayeshev: the crime of selling a person

“Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “what profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’ (Gen 37:25-30)… And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. (39:1)…[And Joseph said] For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ (40:15)

The first story of human trafficking is told here in sidra vayeshev, and sadly it is a story that resonates to this day in the lived experience of the six to eight hundred thousand people estimated to be trafficked across international boundaries each year, and the 20 – 30 million people who are currently estimated to be living in slavery.
Like many who are trafficked today, Joseph is young and vulnerable, he is (to be) sold off by family members, and while presumably sold for labour it is not impossible he could have been sold for sex (certainly Potiphar’s wife has expectations in this area). He finds himself at the mercy of a well organised people trafficking structure, sold through the agency of the Midianites to the Ishmaelites who go on to sell him in Egypt along with their other products. Today human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of over £21 billion every year of which £10 billion is made in industrialized countries. Human trafficking is big business. And it causes enormous suffering.
Bible begins by telling us that human beings are created in the image of the Divine, from which we understand the basic and absolute value of human beings. Just as God is indivisible and of infinite worth, so is humanity indivisible and of infinite worth. We might construct all kinds of models in our heads about class, ethnicity, gender, power, social status, geographical cultural and historical connections, but bible keeps reminding us of the one basic truth: human beings are one group, connected ultimately to the earth on which we live, connected deeply and irrevocably to each other.
The bible as a document is powerfully engaged with this idea, and with how it plays out in the power relationships that humans participate in, that shape our society. It knows how easy it is to abuse power, how simple to turn a blind eye to it happening in both the intimate details of our lives and in the macro environment in which we are live. It knows about the human tendency to construct realities that favour ourselves over others, to neglect or ignore what does not speak to our own self-interest or conform to our idea of reality. Bible provides the nudge, the spur to remind us that not only is there more to the world than our own experience, it repeatedly teaches us that there is an obligation on us to pay attention outside of our comfort zone, a requirement to see the world as God sees it – a fragile and beautiful place filled with fragile and beautiful creatures engaged in a process of improvement but simultaneously undermining and subverting that process out of ignorance or selfishness or thoughtlessness or greed.
We see ourselves in the texts; we recognise the themes and the motifs that play through the stories and we know that we are being prompted to respond.
So when we read the story of Joseph, defenceless in the pit after his brothers’ intervention, saved from being murdered but arguably paying the even greater price of being traded from group to group with no protection and no idea of what the end of his journey may be, powerless and frightened, a product not a person, about whom no one will care what happens – we have to pay attention and we have to respond. There are estimated to be between six and eight hundred thousand people having a similar experience ever year in our world. And we should care.
In the book of Exodus, in the legal code following the giving of the ten commandments and the covenant made between God and Israel, comes the instruction “And one who steals a person and sells them, or if a person be found in their possession (as merchandise), they shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16). Deuteronomy repeats the command: “If a person be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, and sell him; then that thief shall die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the biblical world clearly people were bought and sold, seen as chattels to be profited from, and already the voice of the text is outlawing the behaviour. By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) (for e.g. Sanhedrin11:1) the death penalty for human trafficking is discussed and accepted – a mark of how seriously the crime is taken to be and this is continued in the Gemara (5th Century CE) (e.g. Sanhedrin 86a)
In the medieval period there are responsa again underlining the importance of challenging the prevalence of abducting and selling human beings – for example Maimonides (12th C) tells us that Torah views the kidnap of a person as the most serious form of theft that is strictly prohibited on pain of death under the Noachide code and in the eighth of the Ten Commandments, ( Laws of Theft 9:1-6) and also teaches that redeeming captives is more important than supporting the poor, because captives are in danger of their lives (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim 8:10). Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is “like one who sheds blood.”… the responsa can be found in every century, in every place, demonstrating that the crime of trafficking human beings can equally be found in every century and in every place – including, sadly, our own.
So what should we do? Firstly, we should not ignore the issue, not assume that it is not happening because we have not noticed it, nor that it “wouldn’t happen” in our bit of the world. Secondly we should educate ourselves on the signs, so that we are alert to the possibility of trafficking. These can be found here: http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk/page/spot-the-signs

And we can also think through the ways we live and the choices we make – are the clothes or food we want to buy surprisingly cheap indicating that the makers/pickers are on low wages? Is there an ethical policy in place in the financial transactions we make? Are we sufficiently educated about the real cost, the real chain by which products come to us, the reality faced by people who find themselves in economic bondage to others?
The tragedy of human trafficking is that it hides in plain sight. Bible knew that and tried to give us the tools to see. We are in need of such tools even today. Let the words of Joseph speak to us again “For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ And remind us that the lack of freedom for those who are trafficked is real, a dungeon from which they cannot escape and a place where no meaning can be gleaned.

The Angel of Death and the Limits of Autonomy

angel_deathI sit as a rabbi at the bedsides of the dying. I see the many and varied ways that the dying person, their friends and family, carers and clinicians, cope – or do not cope, with what is happening. I see the fear of pain and the fear of loss. I see ‘good deaths’ and terrible deaths. My own anxiety resonates within me as I walk a few steps of the journey with each person. My most searing rabbinic memory is of an elderly man dying from unstoppable necrosis of the internal organs, curled like a foetus in his hospital bed and whimpering his pain to himself, already far from any awareness of anyone or anything. Such intractable pain witnessed years ago still terrifies me. The pain on the bed and the pain on the face of his soon to be widow, howling in animal agony as she witnessed her husband.

I have seen such deaths and I understand the desire for people not to have to suffer them. I share the desire wholeheartedly, but it does not lead me to believe that legislating in order to assist suicide is a good thing either for society or for the future of many individuals. I fear such legislation even more than I fear such a death for myself, for it will change the narrative and the norms by which human life is seen and valued, and I do not want my children’s children to live in a world where the value of human lives can be quantified, where an expectation may flourish that death is better than continued living, where choosing to die is normalised and accepted as an equal choice with choosing to live.

This, for me, is a case where something may indeed be right for an individual, but where it can never be right for a society. There are some areas of life that will forever have to remain ‘messy’ because to try to clarify them through scaling up to a societal norm what is understandable at the individual level does not work. Life may become such a burden that for an individual it is no longer worth living – but to take this idea to its logical conclusion for society would mean that we would be forced to quantify the value of every life, something so subjective it would be impossible for us to agree on.

Why does our religious tradition, not unaware of or unsympathetic to the problems of overwhelming physical and emotional pain, still refuse to make space within its law codes, its liturgy or its narratives to condone the taking of one’s own life, and why does it explicitly forbid the helping of someone to do so saying “There is no difference between a person who kills either a healthy person or one who is ill and dying, or even a gosses. In all of these cases, the murderer is put to death” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder).

It does so I believe, not because it wants to put people into a position of suffering – indeed it recognises that there are times when the suffering is so great people will indeed act upon it – but because once one deviates from the societal agreement that all human life has absolute and infinite value the door is opened to the possibility of diminishing and relatavising its value. By permitting such an act in its legal codes, it will change the way human life is seen and understood and forever alter the view of the absolute and infinite value of human life. Tradition understands that what is tolerable for individuals to choose does not become tolerable for society to choose. Once it becomes acceptable to measure life in terms of its quality – either subjective or objectively understood, we have laid the groundwork for viewing the value of some life as relatively less than that of others, and opened the door for a diminishment and undervaluing of some human lives.

From this a number of deeply problematic scenarios follow. If quality of life becomes the benchmark by which choosing to die becomes an option, how would one consistently measure it? If by subjective decision making, how easy would it become to opt for death now rather than the more difficult and uncertain continued living? How would depression be measured or ruled out? Or a belief that to choose death will lighten the load either now or in the future, upon the living? Would fear of future pain or incapacity, which may or may not be certain, be allowed to trigger the decision for death, as the anxiety clouds the current quality of life? How and over what length of time would analysis of the capability of the requester be assessed, and against what criteria? Scholars agree that this is always a social rather than a scientifically based process, so no truly objective capability test can be formed. “Capacity assessment” may be the “Trojan Horse” of assisted dying legislation, in that it is meant to provide protection but instead provides cover for dangerous possibilities to enter normal societal discourse.        

As well as the problem of not being amenable to scaling up from the individual to society, the question of assisted dying is a classic dilemma involving two competing ‘goods’:- For people to be able to die without suffering or pain; And for society to protect the vulnerable and not relativise the value of human life. It is not something that is amenable to resolution through legislation, however thoughtfully drafted. In Talmudic terms it is a “Teyku” a situation where the moral arguments on each side balance each other, standing indefinitely in a state of insolubility. 319 times in the Babylonian Talmud the Rabbis are forced to say “Teyku – Let it stand”, when they come across a situation which is not resolvable. There are limits to the application of reason in resolving moral quandaries. In practise one lets the situation stand and each person has to act for themselves while limiting the violations to the other ‘goods’.

Clearly there are intellectual and philosophical arguments on both sides of the debate. Possibly more powerfully there are emotional arguments, such as that we would not allow an animal to suffer what some human beings may experience towards the end of life, or the stories of ‘deathbed’ reconciliation or resolution of entrenched feelings. We are all influenced by our own experiences of seeing someone we love die, or of seeing someone not die, which can indeed be worse. There can be no clear cut and objective line of argument that will lead us to an obvious and shared conclusion. We are talking here about life and death, about the primal emotions that are barely touched by language, so deep are they embedded within us. As Niels Bohr wrote, “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true”

Let us look more closely at the two great truths that all people should be able to die well, and that human life is of infinite value. Both truths desire the dignity of the individual, both are driven from compassion. The difference lies in their view of the primacy of autonomy.

Autonomy offers absolute sovereignty over self, the power to decide; independence of mind and body is seductive and influential on our thinking. “Of course I want to make decisions about myself and my life, and of course I should take this power for myself” we think, “and I must have the right to do so in every circumstance”. And this is what leads us to the other side of the dilemma.

Independence is a political construct rather than a social one. In both the natural and the social world there is no true independence, there is only interdependence. We can have no complete autonomy, our choices have impact beyond our selves and are shaped by the society in which we live. Our autonomy is limited by our own bodies, by rules of law or convention, by our schools or places of work, our families our communities and our traditions. It is limited by the need for a greater ‘good’ –that which is best for our group

We live at a time when it has become an expectation that we can control all aspects of our lives. We have elevated this expectation to the status of right. And yet sometimes we do not have the control, sometimes we find ourselves lost in a place where random illness strikes or where the power is firmly in someone else’s hands, or where what we feel is right for ourselves is in tension with what we know to be right for our community or family. Sometimes we may desperately want something we cannot have. Sometimes we pray and the answer is that God says ‘no’.

                 Jewish tradition has a great deal to say to us about the process of dying and it is intriguingly complex. It struggles with what may be right for one person, yet toxic for society. Hence its response to suicide, whereby the hard line of the texts against the individual who takes their own life is mitigated to the point where the explicit disapproval can be almost entirely overcome in the practical response in the event of suicide.

 The ethical problems of balancing two ‘goods’ – how to treat with dignity and respect the person who takes their own life while at the same time neither approving nor promoting such behaviour in order to preserve the well being of the community is apparent from early texts, showing how conflicted our tradition has been always. While there are a good sprinkling of texts which are sympathetic to the people for whom life has become burdensome, there is absolutely no leeway for legislative support – the whole thrust of halachic literature is to reinforce the absolute sanctity of life, the giving and taking of which is in the hands of God alone. There is no explicit prohibition against suicide in Bible, but Talmud works hard to source such a proscription in Torah, using a number of different verses to do so. The most usual quoted is from the Noachide laws (Genesis 9:5) where God says “And surely your blood of your lives will I require”, but the ban against destruction from Deuteronomy “Do not destroy” (Deut 20:19) is also brought to bear, with the Gemara stating that if this applies to artefacts, then how much more so should it apply to one’s own body? (Baba Kamma 91b).

Yet while attempting to give strength to this proscription against suicide, the Gemara notes that “It must therefore be said that Tannaim differed on this point, for there is one view maintaining that a man may not injure himself and there is another maintaining that a man may injure himself”. (ibid)

It is interesting to me how important Tradition’s need for a teaching against suicide is, while at the same time there is demonstrable understanding that sometimes life just becomes too much for individuals, and ending it becomes an option to be considered seriously. So for example we have the story of the Hittite City of Luz where “even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life (lit. ‘Their mind becomes loathsome to them’) they go outside the wall and then die” (Sotah 46b), and the principle of “lev yodea marat nafsho” (the heart knows the bitterness of the soul) (Prov. 14:10) suggests that subjective feelings having weight in medical decision making is brought into the debate in Yoma 83a.

Despite the compassion towards the [would-be] suicide as individual being, the full weight of Jewish tradition teaches that life is sacred, it is given to us by God, the soul belongs to God and death comes at the will of God alone. Deuteronomy teaches “I cause death and I cause life” (32:39). Hannah prays “Adonai brings death and makes life” (1 Sam 2:6), Job tells us that God gave life and God took life, and God’s name is blessed (1:21), Kohelet tells us that there is “a time to give birth and a time to die” (3:1-2) and just as the process of birthing is out of our control, so too is that of dying. We are made in the image of God, and life is our most precious attribute, something of absolute value that should never be dismissed. The mitzvah of preserving life, Pikuach Nefesh, is so important that fulfilling it supersedes all but three of the mitzvot in Torah.

The Mishnah tells us “Without our consent we are born, and without our consent we live, and without our consent we die, and without our consent we will have to give a reckoning before …the blessed Holy One”. (Pirkei Avot 4:29). Jewish law concerning the dying (gosses) acts every time upon the assumption that life should be cared for, even though it is clear that it will shortly end. Every morning as soon as we awake, we are supposed to pray the words “Adonai, neshama she’natata bi tehorah..” God, you gave me a pure soul. You created it, you formed it, and you made it live within me. But one day you will take it from me to Eternal life”, a prayer that recognises the transience of both life and of death, and the control of God over them both.

Proponents of the right to be assisted in suicide rely on the idea of well framed legislation that would prevent a slippery slope where life would in future be seen as burdensome for reasons that we currently would find problematic. Mention of eugenics, of ending the life of a person with dementia, of pressurising vulnerable people whose care will cost a family or the State a substantial amount of money to choose to die, or of allowing people with mental fragility to choose death over life – all these can be prevented by good drafting of the Bill, they say. But it seems to me that is to place faith in a fragile and inadequately future-proofable instrument. However carefully drafted a Bill may be, there is no guarantee against violation or infringement, and meanwhile the mores of society will drift further away from the valuing of life qua life, into establishing and measuring and challenging the boundaries of what is an acceptable quality of a life, what a reasonable ground for choosing to die. And anyway Law is used to decide between right and wrong, never to be able to choose between two ‘goods’, it is neither designed to do this nor could it possibly be effective.

Once one crosses the Rubicon and accepts the right of the individual to have autonomy over choosing to live or die, the notion of being able to do so only in strictly bounded conditions is open for change. Indeed it is changing already with the owner of the Dignitas Clinic already suggesting that clinical depression is an acceptable reason for choosing death, and the Dutch Supreme Court ruling that “euthanasia or assisted suicide might be justifiable for a patient with severe psychic suffering due to a depressive illness and in the absence of a physical disorder or a terminal condition.” Supreme Court of the Netherlands. Arrest-Chabot, HR 21 June 1994, nr 96 972. Nederlands Juristen Blad 1994;26:893-5.

Once we allow the idea that autonomy over our lives to the point of choosing our deaths is an acceptable societal norm, that human life is not of infinite value and can in some cases be ended through a legally sanctioned process, then there is nothing to prevent a recalibrating of that value in future years. Once we are prepared to attribute a view of quality and to quantify this, then the subjective view of the clinically depressed at one moment in time may trigger an irrevocable decision. No amount of legislative safeguards will completely protect the vulnerable.

Studies have shown that people who want this legislation mainly want it for reassurance, to know that future extreme physical pain can be escaped, and proponents of this kind of legislation quote the relatively small number of people who go on to commit suicide with the help of their physician – about 50 percent of those who receive the prescriptions actually go on to ingest the drug. But this is not about numbers, and reassurance can be provided in other ways.

Consistent studies reveal that the real issues for patients are not so much the fear of physical pain, but the psychological and emotional distress that may accompany it. Patients surveyed usually speak of the fear of loss of autonomy and control, of living with hopelessness and depression. A Dutch research project in 2005 showed that depressed cancer patients were four times more likely to request euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Another study in New York replicated this figure and adds “Among patients who were neither depressed nor hopeless, none had high desire for hastened death”.

The texts of our tradition understand the fear of extreme pain, of psychological pain, and of the burden that life can become. There is no strand of tradition or classical text that aggrandises pain or suggests that we seek suffering, there is no sanctity to be found in agony, and our sources permit the use of every medical means to avoid pain (Shulchan Aruch YD 241:13). They are compassionate and forgiving of any action which a person may do arising out of excessive pain. But they hold a line about incorporating into law or into society the idea that any such action is le’hatchila acceptable or predicated on a value system we can endorse. I think they understood that there is no place of safety once life stops being seen as infinitely valuable, that we might think we can legislate impregnable safeguards but that when we change the basis on which we see human life there is no way ultimately to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

We are faced in society with a pressure towards absolute autonomy, bolstered by a belief that we can really control all aspects of our lives, that there is no thing we cannot do and no decision we cannot make for ourselves. But the reality is that we live in community, and what may be desirable for an individual may not be desirable for the society within which that individual exists. There are problems both of scale and of tension between the ‘good’ of the individual and the ‘good’ of society. The reality is also that absolute control over our destinies is not in fact ours; sometimes we simply cannot have what we want.

Our spiritual tradition helps us with the areas of our lives in which we feel less able, not in order to make us more able necessarily, but to be able to live with what is not possible as much as with what is. The need for reassurance that there will be no pain towards the end of life is mainly in the hands of the medical profession, and I fear for the future of palliative care should more people opt to avoid it by leaving their lives before it becomes necessary. But it is also in the hands of us all – if we journey alongside the dying, offer warmth and care, see the humanity of the person and who they are; If we recognise the totality of the life they have lived, if we maintain their dignity and self worth, address their fears and sadnesses, then we offer a way to deal with the reality that we cannot exert control over every aspect of life. In the words of Rabbah in the Talmud responding to distress of Honi HaMa’agel “either companionship or death” (Ta’anit 3a)

 first published in “Assisted Dying – Rabbinic Responses” ed Romain 2014