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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Is Anything Sacred Anymore?

Rabbi Yosef Polter argues against Question 2.

Question 2 on the Massachusetts November ballot asks us to endorse physician-assisted suicide. I ask: Is anything still sacred?  Is there a threshold that we as humans must not cross, regardless of the intellectual arguments?  Is there any area in life that remains G-d’s domain?

My father suffered the ravages of cancer for the last 18 months of his life. I saw the misery and felt the pain. Yet no one, including he, ever suggested or even contemplated, despite his pain, to help him end his life ahead of G-d’s pre-determined time. It was G-d’s decision, not ours and not his. Not everything is open to our tampering and adjusting to suit our convenience or preference.  

Let’s be clear: Question 2 is not about what people do on their own. People make choices all the time – sometimes the right ones and oftentimes the wrong ones. That’s part of the human condition.  However – and here is the key – personal choices are not the same as society’s choices.  An individual might do something wrong, in some cases very wrong, but it’s an individual.  What is at stake here is whether we as a society will approve and become a partner in causing an innocent person’s premature death. That is a whole different question, and by far a much more serious one.

Regardless of a person’s wish, do we as a society have the right to play G-d?  Do we have a right to interfere with the gift of life even when it doesn’t look like a gift at all?  While suicide is tragic, it doesn’t degrade society as a whole, unless society approves or takes part in it.

The main source for the requirement that a doctor heal the sick is the Bible (Exodus 21, 19). The end of the verse says, “And he shall cause him to be healed.”  It is clear that all a doctor is permitted, and indeed encouraged, to do is to help heal and soothe, not to promote death.

The doctors’ Hippocratic oath reflects the same principle: “I will abstain from whatever is harmful or mischievous. I will neither prescribe nor administer a lethal dose of medicine to any patient even if asked nor counsel any such thing.”

Be aware that there is a basic flaw inherent in the premise of this debate: Our bodies belong to G-d, not to us.  We do not have permission to do whatever we want with them.  G-d gave us our bodies on loan to do good things in this world, acts of goodness and kindness, and to lead a morally wholesome life.  We are the stewards of our bodies and we must care for them as best we can, but the body is not ours to hurt or abuse, or to dispose of.

Incidentally, what does it say about our entire faith in a Supreme Being if we are not even willing to entertain the thought that G-d runs the world, that He, and He alone, decides who lives and who dies, and when, and that miracles do happen?  How often do we hear about cases that defy the odds?  Who’s to say that the person in question will not be the lucky recipient of the next miracle for which the medical world will have no explanation? 

May we finally merit the ultimate redemption when the knowledge and glory of G-d will fill the earth, the result of which will be an end to suffering, including illness and poverty. May this happen speedily so that we won’t even need to vote on Question 2 because illness and suffering will have been vanquished before Election Day. Amen.

Explanatory note: Due to the holiness of G-d’s name it is customary in Judaism not to write out His name in full.

Rabbi Yosef Polter
Acton-Concord Chabad
148 Great Road
Acton, MA 01720

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