Judaism is completely opposed to voluntarily ending one's life. There is a possible exception-- based on King Saul's actions at the end of his life-- for cases where an enemy is about to capture someone and would, in all likelihood, torture the person intolerably, but even that is not fully established. But in terms of the suffering produced by illness, we are allowed and encouraged to medicate the pain as fully as possible, but can do no more than that, in an active sense.
More passively, though, there are occasions where we are allowed to refuse medical treatment because of the pain of our current lives. Suppose someone has a form of cancer that will take two years to end his or her life, but that those years will be filled with pain and suffering. Should such a person contract another illness (an infection or pneumonia, e.g.) that is easily treated but which, left untreated, will kill the person faster and more painlessly, there are occasions where it can be considered permissible to refuse treatment for that secondary illness.
As one more piece of the puzzle, I should stress how much Judaism values each moment of life, always aware that redemptive moments can come quickly and unexpectedly. Someone suffering an illness for six months may find opportunities in those months to atone for sins past and/or accrue merits they never did before. Without belittling pain and its burdens, I would not want to lose sight of the value and preciousness of struggling through it, to the extent possible, alert to the chances to improve oneself and the world as a whole. I have always been moved by the story of the late R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, who was blind, mostly deaf, and otherwise frail at the end of his life, and yet was quoted as saying (with apologies for my memory of his Yiddish), "Azoy a Yid lebt, er mussen willen leben, as long as a Jew lives, he must want to live." As long as God gives us life, it means we have a purpose, and we should look for chances to fulfill those purposes.
These are, I should make clear, all tragic situations and we should approach them with care and sensitivity to the suffering involved. The problem, for us, is that the impermissibility of taking life actively applies here in full-- so much so that it is prohibited in Jewish law to hasten the death of a person who is clearly in the process of dying. Suppose the patient is gasping for breath, but is getting enough breath to keep going-- it is fully murder in Jewish law to hasten that person's end.
What does go away is the ordinary obligation to save life. Generally, the obligation to save a life is absolute and overrides many other laws, but a person like this does not have to act in that way. Even there, rabbinic decisors do generally obligate us to give food and drink to such patients (so, e.g., if someone is in a coma that has little chance of reversing, we would not be allowed to refrain from feeding them, but we might be allowed to refrain from treating any problems that come along.
It is a difficult and tense balance to strike, one that calls for careful thought, much sensitivity, and the seeking of advice from advisors who can be both sympathetic and yet dispassionate in weighing the various considerations.
If a person has a terminal illness what does Judaism say about that person ending their own life?
According to Jewish law, suicide in such a case would be prohibited. We do not have the right, under Jewish law, to end the lives that God has provided to us. Even if, God forbid, we were to be suffering from a terminal illness, it would be forbidden for us to take steps whose goal would be to hasten our demise. It would also, moreover, be forbidden for someone to assist us in taking our own life.
On the other hand, suffering is, in general, not seen as virtuous in our tradition, and steps should be taken to diminish the suffering of all those who suffer, particularly those who suffer from terminal illnesses. It may very well be physical pain or emotional distress that leads a terminally ill person to consider suicide. If the pain is addressed (which it should be) and the emotional distress is addressed (which it also should be), we would hope that the desire to end one’s life would diminish as well.
Sometimes, there may appear to be a conflict between the mitzvah to refrain from hastening someone’s death and the mitzvah to alleviate suffering. In such cases, it is helpful to consult with a rabbinic authority knowledgeable in Jewish medical ethics.
For a fuller discussion of the nuances of this very sensitive topic, please consult Elliot Dorff’s Matters of Life and Death (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia: 2004).
Judaism forbids suicide (Talmud, Bava Kama 91b) and does not allow full funeral rites for someone who has committed suicide. Only God can give life, and so only God is empowered to take life away. Rabbinic authorities usually got around this by assuming that one who takes his own life must be mentally impaired, and therefore not responsible for his actions, and so full funeral rites are allowed even in case of suicide. However, this does not apply to the situation described in the question, where the person is in full possession of his faculties, and makes the considered decision to end his life in the face of a terminal illness.
There are several stories recorded in the Talmud and later rabbinic literature which illustrate Judaism’s opposition to suicide and euthanasia, even in the face of a lingering and painful death. One such story is told of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, who was martyred at the hands of the Romans in the second century CE. The Talmud relates, in Avodah Zarah 17b, that the Romans wrapped him in a Torah scroll and burned him at the stake. Seeing his great pain, his students cried out to him to breathe in the flames and so die more quickly. But he replied, “It is better that God who gave me my life should take it, and I not kill myself.”
On the other hand, Jewish tradition also teaches us that it is not for us to prolong life beyond its normal course. The story is told of the end of the life of the great sage, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi. His colleagues and disciples were gathered in the courtyard of his house, praying for him. He was dying slowly and in great pain, but the prayers of his followers were keeping him in this life. Finally, a maidservant took pity on him. She broke a plate in the courtyard, startling the men at prayer and disrupting their prayers just long enough to allow his soul to slip away. (Ketuvot 104a)
From these and other stories we learn that we should neither artificially hasten, nor artificially prolong death. With this in mind, the Reform Movement recognizes that sometimes it is appropriate to refuse extraordinary measures to preserve a life beyond the point of meaningful life, and even to remove devices which are artificially maintaining a life that would otherwise come to an imminent end.
We come back now to the original question, which seems to indicate a person who is terminal, but not imminently about to die. Can that person make the considered decision to end his life before the disease progresses? The answer to this must be no. Rather, the patient is counseled to seek and take advantage of the best of medical and palliative care, in order to be as comfortable and pain-free as possible. Hospice care should be widely available to help ease the end of life, and the patient must be treated with dignity and respect. We urge people to make Living Wills and Advanced Medical Directives, to lay out clearly what type of care the patient does and does not want. But to take direct action to end one’s life is not permitted.
The Reform Movement has several very good resources to help patients and their families deal with these very difficult end-of-life issues. First is a book called A Time to Prepare, revised and edited by Rabbi Richard Address. From the Union for Reform Judaism website: “Newly revised, A Time to Prepare is both an source of information and a workbook to help consolidate and record all the information you or your loved ones will need to handle critical illness or death. Topics include: durable power of attorney; organ donation; wills; ethical wills; rituals for saying "good-bye", and more.” (http://urjbooksandmusic.com/search.php?mode=search&page=1).
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