Choosing a Time to Die: Is It Time?

I recently had the honor of participating in a program at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. I was there as a scholar in residence and the congregation asked that the Sunday program be dedicated to a discussion of a pending piece of legislation in the Connecticut state legislature of a law that would allow choice in death. The bill, modeled after the Oregon bill has, as you can imagine, created some serious discussion. We have a similar bill pending here in New Jersey. I was pleased to spend some time overviewing the Jewish approaches to end of life issues and was then joined by members of the local Compassion and Choices office. The room was filled at 9.30am. Extra tables were added to seat the overflow. As I mentioned to some of the leadership, the congregation is telling us something: this is an issue that is relevant to them. The audience was mostly first stage Boomers.
I mention this because it raises the issue again of how Boomers, in keeping with our cultural mind-set, wish to explore how we can control even our own death. I believe that this issue is firmly rooted in Boomer geenration’s desire to have some active say in how we choose, if possible and under certain contexts, to leave life. Many of us have seen the experiences with our parents and, in some way I believe, promised ourself and our family, “to not let that happen to me”.
Now there are a variety of ways to approach this issue and Judaism has many avenues of interpretation. What is common however, is what we saw at this congregation’s program. There is a need to have the conversation about one’s wishes. There is a desire also, on the part of our people, to know what their Jewish tradition has to say about this issue and what guidance people can glean from that tradition. I often suggest (as I did this weekend) that every congregation have an annual forum on this subject. It will allow people to learn about what Judaism has to say and to explore some of their own feelings and responses.
This discussion is going to continue to grow in importance as we Boomers age and as medical technology continues to impact end of life issues. Please urge your congregation, or organization, to create such an educational program. You will be of great help to many people. You can check out the programs and resources section of this site for a blurb on the “Making Sacred Decisions” workshop that we offer. Regardless of how you do it, please consider this conversation on the institutional level and, especially, on the family level.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min

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