(RNS) — This might be one of the most important columns I have ever written.
I wrote this, and created the accompanying podcast, because I want to help people deal with the most momentous decision anyone can make.
In the early 1980s, I was at the very beginning of my rabbinical career. I was serving a congregation in Miami, and I visited one of our congregants in the local hospital.
His name was Eli Timoner.
Eli was a very successful man. In 1972, he had launched Air Florida, which became the fastest-growing airline in the world. He was a pillar of the community. He raised millions of dollars for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. He was photographed with political figures. He appeared on “Good Morning America.” He was a man of great physical vitality, an avid long-distance runner and tennis player.
But there I was with Eli in the ICU. He had collapsed in the shower. A massive stroke had permanently paralyzed the left side of his body. He was 53 years old.
This is his story, and the story of his last years, and the story of a momentous, existential decision.
My guest is Rabbi Rachel Timoner, the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York. She tells the story of her father, and of the movie “Last Flight Home,” which her sister, filmmaker Ondi Timoner, directed. It is a documentary about Eli’s decision that he wanted to end his life.
“Last Flight Home” opens an intimate window into the last few weeks of Eli’s life — as he carried out his wishes with the support of his family — his wife, Lisa, and their children Rachel, Ondi and David.
This is a very intimate conversation, about the most tender and most existential question anyone can face.
In particular, Rabbi Timoner and I discuss the topic of how Jewish law has traditionally dealt with the issue of physician-assisted death, that is it frowned on anything that would hasten the death of someone who is even gravely ill.
And yet, Jewish law allows and even mandates removing the obstacles from someone who is dying.
Rabbi Timoner and I discuss the most current Reform responsum (Jewish legal opinion) on this matter, which was prompted by Canada’s law MAiD: Medical Assistance in Dying, which has its parallels in other countries and in some U.S. states.
This was my growing edge. Through my reading of this profound work of Jewish legal literature, and my own conversation with Rabbi Timoner, I grew in my understanding of this complex issue.
Like many people, I had been very wary of anything that seemed like a slippery slope toward viewing lives as being “lives unworthy of living” (with its fiendish echoes of Nazi ideology). I believed Jewish law mandated, first and foremost, a vigorous embrace of the possibilities of life. What do we Jews say, each time we lift a goblet of wine? L’chaim. To life.
And yet, I had to dig deep. I needed to understand several things.
First: When you consider traditional Jewish law on medical ethics — on end of life issues — you would find those laws in the Shulchan Aruch, the classic code of Jewish law.
When was it written? In 1563.
You do understand, therefore, that if we use the Shulchan Aruch as our key way of understanding our Jewish responsibilities to the dying and their families — that we are relying on medical awareness, on life expectancy and on technology that predates Shakespeare’s writing of “Hamlet” by 40 years.
What happened back then? Jewish law understands the concept of a goses — someone whose death is imminent. In 1560, that status might have lasted for, at most, days.
What happens today in far too many hospital rooms and hospices? People linger for weeks on end. Technology keeps them alive — with huge medical, financial, human and emotional costs.
In 1560, we knew people endured pain. But, traditional Jewish law had yet to understand the concept of total pain. Traditional Jewish thinking had yet to understand there is a difference between living and merely existing.
Let me put it to you simply: On this issue, Jewish law has been frozen in a time warp, and we contemporary Jews need to unfreeze it.
Second (and in some ways, this realization is even bigger): Traditional Jewish law has only considered Jewish law — halacha — as binding in these conversations.
But Judaism is much larger than that. Judaism also encompasses Jewish lore — aggadah —the rabbinic tales and legends. We love to tell those stories, but the truth is: We have omitted those voices from our decisions about how to live.
Let me give you the most powerful and most poignant example of a story that could guide our thinking in this vexing and weighty matter.
Yehuda ha-Nasi — Rabbi Judah the Patriarch — was dying. His colleagues were fervently praying to keep him alive.
But, there was a maidservant who was watching and listening. That maidservant knew the great rabbi was suffering deeply.
What did she do?
She took a pitcher, and she threw it to the ground, and it broke — and the noise of that shattering distracted the rabbis from their prayer, and in the moments that they ceased their prayers, Rabbi Judah died.
The Jewish tradition sees the act of that maidservant as praiseworthy — because she allowed Judah to escape from his unimaginable suffering.
We have known about that story for many years.
We have even told that story.
But we had not used that story as its own reason for allowing someone who is suffering to die. If we want our tradition to remain relevant and vital and viable for us and for future generations, we need to expand our notion of what it means to make Jewish decisions. We need to expand our resources for making those traditions. We need to see Jewish law and Jewish lore as integrated elements of a single Jewish worldview.
Listen to the podcast. More than that: Listen to it with the people you love. Let it spark a deep conversation — about life, suffering and death.
These are necessary conversations.
May God bless you in all those journeys of the heart, soul and mind.