[Paleopsych] Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Jewish Ethical Views Differ on Schiavo
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Sun Mar 27 18:53:33 UTC 2005
Jewish Ethical Views Differ on Schiavo
The Jewish Journal Of Greater Los Angeles
by Joanne Palmer, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
As a federal court considers whether to reconnect Terri Schiavos
feeding tube, Jewish scholars are turning to halacha, or Jewish
religious law, for guidance on the issue.
Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents and
husband have been battling in state and now federal courts for more
than a decade, is the insensate center of a swirl of emotion and legal
Religious leaders have been involved as well. Schiavo and her parents,
Mary and Robert Schindler, are Roman Catholic, and many of their most
fervent supporters are fundamentalist Protestants.
The Schindlers want to keep their daughters feeding tube in; Michael
Schiavo, her husband, wants it removed so his wife can die a natural
Jews, like others caught up in the debate, have a range of beliefs,
and their understanding of how to apply halacha varies accordingly.
Virtually all the rabbis interviewed, though, told JTA that they did
not agree with attempts by some conservative Christians to tie
Schiavos case to the public debate about abortion.
At the traditional end of the spectrum, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the
ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the Schiavo case is
straightforward from a Jewish perspective: The most important point
from a halachic standpoint is that a compromised life is still a life.
In the Schiavo case, youre not dealing with a patient in extremis, he
said, noting that until her feeding tube was removed, Schiavo was not
In halacha, there is a category for a person at the edge of death; the
rules for such a person, called a goses, are complicated.
There are times when certain medical intervention is halachically
contraindicated, Shafran said. There may be times when its OK not to
shock a heart back into beating, not to administer certain drugs. You
do not prolong the act of dying.
However, Schiavo was not a goses, Shafran said. Instead, he added,
before the tube was removed, she had the exact same halachic status as
a baby or a demented person. Like a baby, she was helpless, could not
feed herself and was not able to communicate in any meaningful way.
But a life is a life.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox
Union, the central arm of modern Orthodoxy, agreed that from a
halachic perspective, the Schiavo case is straightforward.
Its not permitted to do anything actively that would stop the process
of a persons staying alive, he said. In this case, that would be
withdrawing a feeding tube, which is tantamount to starving a person
Like Shafran, Weinreb said the wishes of the patient or the family are
It might have a bearing on whether new measures are undertaken, but
once a person is on a support system, removing it is not possible,
Doing something to actively interfere with a persons ability to
continue to live technically is murder, he said. I cant imagine a
scenario that would make removing the feeding tube permissible.
Rabbi David Feldman, who had an Orthodox ordination and defines
himself as traditional, is rabbi emeritus of the Conservadox Jewish
Center of Teaneck, N.J.
Theres a dispute here between a husband and parents, but none of that
makes any difference as far as halacha is concerned, said Feldman,
author of Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law
(Schocken, 1975) and the dean of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics.
You cant hasten death yourself, with your own hands. If death comes,
you can thank God because its a relief, but you cant decide yourself
that it has to be done.
The only time it would be acceptable to remove a medical device,
Feldman said, would be if something worse would happen if leaving it
in would cause infection or more pain.
You can kill someone pursuing you, you can kill the soldier in the
enemy army, maybe very cautiously you can kill if there is a death
penalty, but you cant kill an innocent person because of illness, he
Rabbi Joel Roth is a member of the Conservative movements Rabbinical
Assemblys Law Committee. In 1990, when he was the committees chair,
the group studied end-stage medical care and accepted two opposing
positions on artificial nutrition and hydration.
One, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, would permit withholding and withdrawing
the tube; the other, by Rabbi Avraham Reisner, would not.
The divide comes from how the tube that provides food and water is
defined. If it is seen as a medical device, as Dorff does, it may be
removed, Roth said. If it is seen as a feeding device, as Reisner
does, it may not be removed.
Dorff puts a person dependent on a feeding tube in the halachic
category of treifah, which, he argues, is a life that does not require
our full protection an animal that is treifah is one that has some
kind of physical defect that will prohibit it from having a prolonged
life. So he argues that a treifah is a life that does not require our
full protection, Roth said.
Reisner, on the other hand, treats these people as goses, Roth said.
And even in the end stage, he noted, there is the value of chaya
shaah, the life of the hour. In other words, Roth said, even when
there is very little life left, that life still matters.
The Conservative movement accepts both decisions, but Roth, a
professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary
in New York, sides with Reisner, and with Schiavos parents.
She should be kept on the feeding tube, he said. Shes not being
medicated, and shes breathing on her own.
Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches rabbinics at the Reform movements Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, and he sits
on the movements responsa committee.
The movement does not speak with one voice on the issue, Washofsky
said, but in 1994 it issued a responsa on the treatment of terminally
Like the Conservative decisions, the Reform rabbis base their view of
whether a feeding tube can be removed on their understanding of the
We cannot claim that Jewish tradition categorically prohibits the
removal of food and water from dying patients, Washofsky said. But we
consider food and water, no matter how they are delivered, the staff
of life. So what we ultimately do is express deep reservations about
their withdrawal, but in the end, we say, nonetheless, that because we
cannot declare that the cessation of artificial nutrition and
hydration is categorically forbidden by Jewish moral thought, the
patient and the family must ultimately let their consciences guide
Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, agrees that the
question is how a feeding tube is defined.
If it were a form of eating, a position held by a number of more
traditional halachic authorities, then youre required to feed those
who are hungry, Teutsch said. But if its medicine a position held by
Conservative authorities like Rabbi Elliott Dorff, and by me as well
then you serve the interests of the patient, which may involve not
He believes that a feeding tube is a medical device, and so it can be
removed, Teutsch said.
Its pretty clear that its closer to regular intervention than to
eating, he said.
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