halachah · sermon · social justice

My objections to euthanasia

I try not to broadcast disagreement with the rabbinate, especially when many colleagues are very senior, and I am still a student. It is even more cavalier, then, to express opposition to something advocated by the two Progressive movements, both Liberal and Reform Judaism. This issue, however, has been brewing for some time, and I feel compelled to speak out on it.

I do not agree with the current responsa coming from the movements on euthanasia. In fact, they make me deeply uncomfortable. I know that wading into such a morally complex discussion will undoubtedly upset people. Please know that my position is, almost certainly, a minority one. Please also understand that it is very sincerely and deeply held.

In June of this year, Liberal Judaism became a founding member of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups that campaigns for the rights of terminally ill people to determine how, when and where they die. 

This signaled the movement’s support for euthanasia, or assisted dying: when patients with incurable diseases are legally killed by their doctors. At the time, the decision caused some consternation in the Liberal rabbinate. Only a handful of people had made the decision with very little consultation. Dissidents objected that this was not a morally cut-and-dry decision, but one that needed much more careful thought than had been given. 

Nevertheless, the movement celebrated the media coverage they had received. They proudly displayed their reporting in The Sunday Times, Politics Home, and The Jewish News. Bold stances certainly grab headlines, and this was as bold as they could get.

This week, Reform Judaism took a more measured approach. After a great deal of consultation and discussion, the movement effectively arrived at the decision not to pick a side. Their responsum, published on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle this week, says we “will not campaign either in favour or against efforts to change the law on the issue.” 

Nevertheless, the decision garnered media attention because, for the first time, Reform Judaism promised it would provide pastoral care to patients who did choose to end their lives. In itself, that might not have been newsworthy. Since our founding, we have endeavoured to provide compassionate care to everyone who sought it, regardless of beliefs or life choices. 

It is uncontroversially the right choice that we should support individuals, regardless of our personal beliefs, and stay neutral on the law, when we are so patently divided. It would have been far more surprising if Reform Judaism had announced it was not going to provide pastoral care to terminally ill people. That would have resulted in much greater outrage.

Clearly, the “landmark” decision received the attention it did because it sent a subtle message of support for euthanasia. It suggested, while of course doing everything possible to argue to the contrary, that the movement endorsed such decisions. This responsum was consequently followed up by much media coverage, including an opinion leader in The Times.

The two movements are certainly leading a conversation in this country on assisted dying, but are they leading it in the right direction? I think not. 

This is not because I am in any way a conservative on this issue. In general, Jewish religious law up to this point has stood against the principle of assisted dying. The traditional Jewish response has been that life comes from God, belongs to God, and only God can take it away.

As such, the Mishnah rules that even closing the eyes of a dying person is tantamount to murder. The Shulchan Aruch says that a dying person must be given all the rights of a living one, and the Mapa adds that it is forbidden to do anything to hasten death.

These halachic rulings form the backbone of Orthodox objection to euthanasia. Most Progressive Jews share the Orthodox belief in the sanctity of life. Since at least the 1980s, however, we have had internal debates about what that means and how it should be implemented. Some have argued that, with necessary safeguards, relief of pain should be prioritised over unnecessary prolongation of life. 

As Progressive Jews, we are not bound by the decisions of the past, but seek to draw on them in conjunction with the best medical and moral reasoning of our age. We move with the times.

My objection is not to the abstract principle of euthanasia, but to the political context in which these decisions are being made. We never legislate in a vacuum, but have to consider what we advocate in the context of what is happening in the context of society at large. 

Yes, we can move with the times, but let’s look at where our times are heading. Right now, there is a wholesale assault on the rights and dignity of disabled people. Successive governments going back many decades have vilified disabled people as scroungers, leeching off the state, taking more from society than they give to it. 

With the introduction of fiscal austerity in Britain, the greatest burden fell on disabled people, who had their services, welfare, and jobs cut. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many ministers have made it clear that they see the lives of clinically vulnerable people as disposable. They have shown that they would prefer to prioritise the economy over the lives of people in hospitals and care homes. It is little wonder that some disabled people want to die, when they have been deprived of so much in life.

What message does it send out now if we say that we support assisted suicide? We may have been silent on the great attacks on disabled people’s lives, but, don’t worry, we are liberals, we will let you die. Just to show how caring we are, we’ll let you commit suicide, with support from the very state that has made your life so difficult.

If we are moving with the times, we are moving very much in the wrong direction. Coming out as pro-euthanasia now puts us on the side of those who are currently dehumanising the elderly and disabled. Publicly championing euthanasia is not defending the vulnerable, but attacking them.

Yes, as Progressive Jews, we do advocate choice and personal autonomy. But not all choices should have our enthusiastic support. The actor and disabled rights  activist, Liz Carr, has rightly said that, if someone is going to kill themselves, it is hard to stop them, but “that does not mean when a fellow human being – disabled or abled – expresses the wish to die because their life is shit, that we should agree with them.”

Some disabled people already feel that they are too great a burden on others. This is because we live in a system that reinforces that message: focusing on a person’s ability to be “economically productive” as their sole source of value, rather than loving them unconditionally for the fact of being alive.

That system, and the ideological apparatus around it, tells disabled people that their lives are not worth living. If we join in as cheerleaders for assisted dying, we are sharing the message that we agree with them. No wonder every disabled rights charity in the country opposes euthanasia liberalisation.

If we want to send out the right messages, I suggest we need to go in a different direction entirely. Rather than campaigning on people’s right to die, we should put the weight of our movements on campaigning for the right to live.

That means channelling our energy in campaigning for jobs for disabled people; proper welfare provision; decent and accessible social housing; the restructuring of our cities and public transport networks so that everyone can access them; investment in clubs and societies people can actually reach.

Yes, all of these things cost money. But the way we are going now costs lives.

I want you to know that, whatever you decide to do in life, I will absolutely support you and be there with you. But I will do that because I believe, on a fundamental religious level, that your life is precious and worth living. I believe in making that it is the duty of religious people, and of the government, to make people’s lives on earth as good and fulfilling as they can be.

We should absolutely support people at every stage of their lives, but the build up to someone wanting to die matters far more than enabling them to do it. We ought to assist people to live, not to die.

Shabbat shalom.

story · torah

A rock-eating worm built the Temple

This is the story of how the Temple was built.

This story comes to us from the Talmud. It was copied from the Mishnah. It belongs to the folk legends of King Solomon that may have predated it by some centuries. This is an old story. I sincerely doubt whether any of it ever happened, but I assure you it’s all true.

This is the story of how the Temple was built by a rock-destroying worm. When King Solomon decided to build the Temple, he brought up entire stones from the quarry. He wanted to carve those stones without swords. He knew there was only one way.

Somewhere in his kingdom there was a rock-destroying worm called Shamir. This monster was created at the very beginning of time, during the six days of creation in which light and darkness were separated and the first trees were planted. 

Some say the Shamir ate stones for breakfast; chewed through the hardest granite, making passageways like the holes in Swiss cheese. Some say it could cut through the rocks with only its gaze: a laser-like stare that sliced solid metal. Whatever were its methods, Solomon knew he had to have it.

In fact, the only way to catch this creature was to find something really soft. You had to wrap it up in cotton wool and barley bran. These materials would be too gentle and the Shamir would have no way of chewing through them.

Yes, this is all in the Talmud. This is our tradition. And if you feel like this rock-gobbling worm is far-fetched, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that Solomon captured this creature by tricking the King of the Demons.

Solomon knew that Ashmedai, the world’s greatest demon, lived in the bottom of a pit on the top of the world’s tallest mountain. And the pit was filled up with gallons of rainwater that the demon swallowed whole every day, then waited for it to refill. 

Solomon sent his servant up that mountain and into that pit. The servant drained the pit of its rainwater and filled it again with fortified wine.

You might think that the King of the Demons would not fall for such a simple trick, and you’d be right. Ashmedai scoffed at the wine-filled pit and refused to drink from it. But days passed and the monster missed his gallons of water. Oh, he became so parched. Eventually, he gave in and took several enormous mouthfuls of the wine. 

Within moments, he fell fast asleep. Solomon’s servants tied him up and carried him back to Jerusalem. When Ashmedai woke up on the Palace floor, he roared at Solomon: “is it not enough that you have conquered the whole world, but now you must imprison me too?”

“I promise you,” said Solomon. “All I want is one creature. The shamir. The worm that eats through stone. I need it to build my Temple for God.”

Ashmedai sighed, and he replied: “I do not own the shamir. It belongs to the ministering angel of the sea, who has entrusted it to the wild rooster. Together they hide in the uninhabitable hills, where the rooster guards his eggs.” 

I’m quoting to you from the Talmud directly here, so you know that what I’m telling you is true. 

When Solomon knew where to find the wild rooster, he covered its nest with transparent glass. Seeing that it couldn’t get in, the rooster brought over the shamir to bore through the rocks. As soon as he’d seen the monster, Solomon knocked the chicken off of the nest and ran to collect his prize.

According to our tradition, that is how the First Temple was built. Overseen by Solomon, the King of the world, accompanied by Ashmedai, the King of the Demons, a stone-chewing worm carved out every brick. It snaked through all the pillars and ate at every rock. After years of winding through the granite, Solomon’s Temple was complete.

So, why did the Talmud come up with such a tall tale? Can it be that our rabbis really believed the Temple was built in such a fantastical manner? Somehow I doubt it. But nevertheless, I am adamant that this story is true. At least, I think it tells us something important we need to know.

Our rabbis were answering a textual problem. The Bible told us that King David was not allowed to build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. He had fought too many wars, subjugated too many peoples and built too much of his empire on the labour of others.

Only Solomon, whose name in Hebrew is cognate with peace, was able to overcome the violent tendencies of his father and build a Temple that would truly be fitting for God. How could he build such an edifice without getting blood on his hands?

When our rabbis imagine the construction of the Temple, they picture it as it ought to have been. No wars are fought to secure land. No natural resources are exploited to gain the raw materials. No workers are hurt in the making of the building. All that happens is a natural process, where a worm that would eat rocks anyway works its way through the stones to build God’s home.

The only people vaguely harmed are a demon who got drunk and a rooster that was knocked off its perch. This is the dream of how the Temple should have been made. It was created in complete peace and harmony with nature. 

By encouraging us to inhabit this fantasy, the Talmud draws our attention to the harshness of reality. Even the greatest and most noble civilisations are built on violence. Cities, skyscrapers and the highest cultures are all products of real graft. Human beings do interfere with nature. We do exploit workers. We do plunder natural resources and we do secure territories through war.

When we imagine a world where rock-destroying worms can carve out our accomplishments for us, we know that we are imagining something impossible. But the nature of Talmud is to challenge us to do impossible things.

The Talmud asks us to picture a different relationship between human beings, nature, and civilisation. In a world where the climate is being damaged in unspeakable ways, such imagination is required of us again. Humanity is at a juncture when we must completely rethink how to use resources and what kinds of civilisations we build.

That is what makes it true and that is why it still speaks to us today. The Temple was built by a rock-eating worm. Perhaps one day, we will build the world that way again.

I gave this sermon for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Terumah, on 20th February 2021. For the sources, look at Sotah 48b and the sugya beginning in Gittin 67b

festivals · judaism · sermon

How to survive the rainy season

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was a Hassidic rabbi who left behind his Orthodox community to join the American hippies in the 1960s. He wound up founding the Renewal Movement, combining traditional Judaism with New Age meditation and spirituality.

He used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man. Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics. As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the autumn equinox, and the holiday of Pesach, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up! “Oh,” he said, “in the autumn you teach your children the shelter survival, and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”

This answer makes a lot of sense of what Sukkot is actually about. Disconnected from the rural desert living of our ancient ancestors, the practice of erecting temporary shelters and covering them in fertility talismans might seem incomprehensible. But for those who are connected to the earth’s agricultural cycles, Sukkot makes a lot of sense. It’s about learning to survive the rainy season.

The Torah portion commands us to spend eight days in temporary shelters to recall our wandering in the wilderness. For the ancient Israelites, this probably wasn’t just recollection of a mythic past. In a world where entire years could be upended by flash flooding, droughts and unexpected ecological malfunction, being able to move must have been a necessity. Any young person would need to know how to build shelter and brave the elements. Considered in this light, Sukkot feels more like a biblical precursor to Scouts and Guides.

By the time of the Mishnah, Jews had migrated away from nomadic agricultural living towards inhabiting larger settlements and cities. Yet even this 2nd Century text seems to capture something of the necessity of surviving the rainy season. It talks about which building materials and supporting structures are appropriate. It instructs us to make sure there are holes in our roof – a sure indicator that we’ll really experience everything the Heavens can throw at us. The Mishnah maintains the survival lessons.

And then, suddenly, the Mishnah seems to strike an altogether different note. Out of nowhere, it tells us about all the different ways to conclude the festival celebrations. The text stops being about surviving and starts being about how to be joyful. Harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets. Psalms and songs and dancing. Shofar blasts. Meat. Banqueting. Carnival. In fact, the Mishnah tells us: “if you haven’t seen a party like this, you’ve never seen joy before in your life.”

Why would the Mishnah jump from teaching us the survival methods of our ancestors to talking about all this revelry? Perhaps the answer is that they’re not so distinct after all. Joy isn’t an add-on to survival: it’s integral to it. If you really want to get through the rainy seasons and the darkness of winter, you’ve got to have the right mindset. Cosy homes and well-stocked cupboards matter a lot, but attitude counts too.

The health psychologist Kari Leibowitz reckons she can back this up with science. She studied the mental health of people living in the polar regions of Norway, when winter brings exceedingly long nights and disrupted sleep patterns. Amazingly, she found that Norwegians were just as happy in the winter as at any other time of year. This was because many Norwegians approached the long nights as a challenge that excited them. The more people saw winter as a fun time, the more fun they actually found it.

Maybe that’s what our forebears of Torah and Mishnah knew from years of experience. If you want to get through the rainy season, you have to actually want the rain to come. You have to be a little bit thrilled by the idea. Surviving is not just about keeping our bodies intact – it’s about having mental determination to get through. 

Some of that is about what you imagine when you think of the rainy months. I’ve already started picturing hot chocolates, roast vegetables, games of Scrabble and complicated jigsaw puzzles. I’m imagining arts and crafts while sitting under piles of rugs with the baby in a handmade jumper. 

Of course, not everybody has access to the luxuries I’m describing. Some people are legitimately worried that autumn could bring tighter finances, struggles heating their houses and even homelessness as recession kicks in. These are serious issues, and it’s not fair to expect people facing such challenges to feel joy. So why not start easing their minds now?

Our food banks, mutual aid societies and housing shelters need your support. Get down now to donate what you can, and give what you can through their websites. If you want to practice feeling joy, helping others is a great way to start. 

So that’s how we’re going to survive the rainy months. By knowing our history. By learning traditional skills. By experiencing joy. By helping each other. 

After all, there’s only one way we can get through all this: together.

I gave this sermon for Sukkot 5781 on 3rd October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.