“In His or Her Best Interests”…Some Lessons Gleaned From Bio-Ethics Conference

I recently had the honor and priviledge of participating in a very meaningful conference sponsored by the Jewish Studies Department of Arizona State University. Entitled “Health, Mortality and Morality: Jewish Perspectives”, the conference brought together a number of the leading scholars in the field of Jewish Bio-ethics from a variety of disciplines. All denominations plus academicians and clinicians from around the world sat for 2 days to discuss a variety of issues related to the ethical, clinical and theological challenges associated mainly with end of life issues. There were, as you might expect, some disagreements as to issues, such as how and when to remove artificial/mechanical aids to living. There were differences in law between United States and Israeli practices. Yet, for all these differences, there was more often than not, commonality of approach. The tradition, across the denominational lines, seeks to do, as Rabbi David Teutsch reminded us in his presentation, that which is “l’tovato”, that which in a person’s best interests.
We were reminded often that we need to examine each case, each life as an independant situation, that each life is different, and thus, each death is likewise. Dr. Batsheva Ziff-Werman, of Israel, in discussing Israeli law, taught us the sensitivity of not using the term DNR (do not resusitate) rather to use the Israeli term AND (allow natural death). There were a variety of additional papers, including a keynote by Rabbi Elliot Dorf who taught us the 4 effects of illness on a person to be: isolation, debilitation, infantilization and boredom. (NOTE–WATCH FOR OUR NEW SERIES OF JEWISH SACRED AGING POD-CASTS COMING IN MARCH. OUR FIRST WILL FEATURE RABBI DORF DISCUSSING THIS PRESENTATION)
What was the “take-away” from these two intensive days? A reality that, in these discussions on end of life issues, there is remarkable sensitivity on the part of our tradition. There is the idea that each case must be seen on its own merits and that the values of life’s dignity and sanctity form an ethical and theological foundation upon which decisions can be made, even knowing that one person’s understanding of those terms may vary from another persons. In the end, these conversations were framed with a distinct reverence for life itself, and an appreciation of the gift of our life, even as it ebbs.
Rabbi Richard F Address

1 Comment

  1. When my mother was hospitalized for the last four days of her life, I did not at first have a full appreciation of the seriousness of her condition. When I was about to leave the hospital the first night, the nurse on duty asked me if I wanted to sign a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. I was completely aghast…of course I want you to resuscitate her, she’s my mother! Fortunately, she was not in distress or pain as she drifted away in those last days. Had she been, by not signing the DNR I might have been doing much more harm than good. How much more sensitive and informative is the Hebrew acronym AND (allow natural death)! It helps allow the loved one to die with dignity, as well as relieving the guilt of the survivors for “not doing all one could” for the patient.

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