Monday, March 9, 2015

A question regarding Chesed

When I switched from the synagogue rabbinate to my primarily-educational role in Toronto's YU Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash, I wrestled with a particular dissatisfaction that came from leaving the shul rabbinate. In retrospect, several years down the road, I have come to realize that part of my discomfort came from the following question:

Is teaching a class an act of chesed (generosity)?

I have my own thoughts, and I may expand on them later this week, but what do you think?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Purim Torah 5775

Since I've been speaking about death so much lately, here's my contribution to Purim Torah 5775: The Torah's 616th mitzvah, Assisted Suicide:

Vayikra 19:16 warns, “You shall not stand by as the blood of your friend is shed.” From this verse, the Supreme Court of Canada shli”t derives the Torah’s 616th mitzvah: To assist your friend in dying. This active commandment is an aseh haba michlal lav, a command derived from a prohibition: You must not stand by, but rather, you must act.

Writing in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, the Supreme Court explained further that prohibitions against helping others to die are misguided, as they cause early death. They wrote, “[T]he prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable.” Therefore, the Court concluded, it is better to pledge to assist someone to end his life, so that he will live long enough for you to end it, and not kill himself earlier. [Note: This was not a Purim paragraph; this is part of their actual decision. You can look it up.]

The decision did not come without controversy. Rabbi Moshe L’chaim shli”t argued that the talmudic principle, “We do not sin in order to provide merit for another (Shabbat 4a)” should apply, since the killer here sins (murder) in order to prevent his victim from sinning (suicide). However, an amicus brief filed by the KFMI (Kosher Frozen Meals Industry) contended that assisting others in dying is a time-honoured religious practice, and it should be protected regardless of talmudic logic.

Scholars disagree regarding whether it is appropriate to recite a blessing when assisting at the time of death. Igeret She’ol suggests that m’chayeh hameitim (“He who gives life to the dead”) should be recited, since the assister has lengthened the life of his victim by killing him. In response, Bila haMavet argues that no blessing should be recited; the mitzvah of extending the victim’s life has concluded, and therefore the blessing would not be recited over la’asiyato (preceding the mitzvah), as is required.

There is also considerable disagreement regarding the appropriate punishment for a physician who refuses to assist in ending a life. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada favours lashes, but Gesher haMavet disagrees, because failure to assist is a lav she’ein bo maaseh (a prohibition violated via inaction), and therefore there is no corporal punishment.

Another question arises regarding the proper means of assisting. Per Maavir Yabok, it would be best to minimize one’s assistance by using a shinui (an abnormal action), as well as grama (an action which does not directly cause the result). An example would be to place an obstruction in a breathing tube, then use the back of one’s thumb to push a button which would cause carbon dioxide to vent into the tube (shinui), and then to remove the obstruction from the breathing tube (grama). However, Artscroll’s Laws of Assisting Death contends that use of grama could invalidate the mitzvah.The Artscroll guide prefers direct administration of a poison pill, but it acknowledges some debate regarding the blessing the patient should recite upon the pill.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Environment Canada: Cloudy with a chance of making stuff up

This, from a friend in Pennsylvania, is priceless:



Because yes, I really do feel better when the forecast says +1...

Death, death and more death

When I was a synagogue rabbi, I bemoaned the fact that so much of what I did was death-centered. Well, the past couple of weeks have been a throwback to that time, due to a confluence of events: An interest by local organizations in having seminars on "end of life" care, and the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling, on February 6, that physician-assisted suicide should be legal.

The result is that this is the major topic everyone wants to hear about. So on Monday evening I spoke at a synagogue on Assisted Death, and Tuesday evening I spoke for a UJA program on end of life care. On Wednesday I have a lunch and learn at an accounting firm, and they want to talk about assisted death. Then, on Sunday of next week, I am to speak at another synagogue on End of Life care.

It's good that people want to hear Judaism speak to these issues, and I'm honoured to be asked, but boy... what I wouldn't give to be asked to speak about fertility treatments instead...


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Esther's Bloody War?

In case the few remaining readers have been wondering where I've been, quite a bit of my time in the past week has been dedicated to writing a new edition of Shiur Theatre - "Esther's War" - for our Beit Midrash. In a presentation this Shabbos, we will look at the halachic and ethical questions raised by the bloodshed, and fear-based conversion, that occurred in the events of the original Purim.

I don't expect to share the script here (at least, not until I see how it is received on Shabbos...), but here is the accompanying source sheet. I don't imagine it will be all that intelligible without the script, but some of the sources may be interesting. It is also downloadable in pdf here.


Persian conversion to Judaism out of fear: Is it legitimate?
1.   Esther 8:17
וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי־נָפַל פַּחַד־הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם:
And many from the population converted themselves to Judaism, for the fear of Mordechai had fallen upon them.

2.   Talmud, Yevamot 24b
וכן מי שנתגייר לשום שולחן מלכים, לשום עבדי שלמה, אינן גרים, דברי ר' נחמיה; שהיה רבי נחמיה אומר: אחד גירי אריות, ואחד גירי חלומות, ואחד גירי מרדכי ואסתר אינן גרים... א"ר יצחק בר שמואל בר מרתא משמיה דרב: הלכה כדברי האומר כולם גרים הם...
One who converts in order to partake of a royal table, or to be among Solomon's servants, is not a valid convert, per Rabbi Nechemiah. For Rabbi Nechemiah said: Those who have converted for fear of wild animals or due to dreams, and those who converted in the days of Mordechai and Esther, are not valid converts…
Rav said: The law follows the view that they are all valid converts [after the fact].

3.   Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 268:12
כשיבא הגר להתגייר, בודקים אחריו שמא בגלל ממון שיטול או בשביל שררה שיזכה לה או מפני הפחד בא ליכנס לדת.
When one comes to convert, we investigate whether he might be trying to enter the religion to acquire money, or to achieve power, or out of fear.

4.   Tosafot, Yevamot 24b לא
קשה דאמרינן בהערל (עט.) גבי מעשה דגבעונים דבימי דוד נתוספו גרים על ישראל ק"ן אלף וי"ל דמעצמן נתגיירו כדאשכחן גבי מרדכי ואסתר ורבים מעמי הארץ מתיהדים
But doesn't the Talmud (Yevamot 79a) say regarding the event with the Gibeonites in King David's day, that 150,000 people converted? Perhaps they converted independently, as occurred in the days of Mordechai and Esther…

The invasion of Canaan: Does the Torah endorse bloodshed beyond self-defense, and looting?
5.   Bereishit 34:25-27
וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיוֹתָם כֹּאֲבִים וַיִּקְחוּ שְׁנֵי־בְנֵי־יַעֲקֹב שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אֲחֵי דִינָה אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל־הָעִיר בֶּטַח וַיַּהַרְגוּ כָּל־זָכָר: וְאֶת־חֲמוֹר וְאֶת־שְׁכֶם בְּנוֹ הָרְגוּ לְפִי־חָרֶב וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת־דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם וַיֵּצֵאוּ: בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב בָּאוּ עַל־הַחֲלָלִים וַיָּבֹזּוּ הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר טִמְּאוּ אֲחוֹתָם:
And on the third day, when they were in pain, two sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, took their swords and came upon the secure city, and killed every male. And they killed Chamor and his son Shechem by the sword, and they took Dinah from the house of Shechem, and they left. The sons of Yaakov came upon the corpses and despoiled the city, for contaminating their sister.

6.   Yehoshua 12:7-24
וְאֵלֶּה מַלְכֵי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל... מֶלֶךְ יְרִיחוֹ אֶחָד מֶלֶךְ הָעַי אֲשֶׁר־מִצַּד בֵּית־אֵל אֶחָד: מֶלֶךְ יְרוּשָׁלִַם אֶחָד מֶלֶךְ חֶבְרוֹן אֶחָד: מֶלֶךְ יַרְמוּת אֶחָד מֶלֶךְ לָכִישׁ אֶחָד:... כָּל־מְלָכִים שְׁלֹשִׁים וְאֶחָד:
And these are the kings of the land whom Yehoshua and the Children of Israel struck… One was the king of Jericho, one was the king of Ai beside Bethel. One was the king of Jerusalem, one was the king of Hebron. One was the king of Yarmut, one was the king of Lachish… all of the kings were 31.

7.   Devarim 20:10
כִּי־תִקְרַב אֶל־עִיר לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ לְשָׁלוֹם:
When you draw near to a city, to battle it, you shall call to it for peace.

8.   Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Devarim 23:10
הספרי מדגיש "על - איביך - כנגד אויביך אתה נלחם"; התורה מניחה שתילחם רק באלה שהראו את עצמם כאויביך, שסבלת מאיבתם ואתה מצפה מהם למעשי איבה, ולפיכך אפילו תתקיף אותם, רק תגן על עצמך; דברים אלה שוללים כל מלחמת כיבוש
"When you go to war against your enemy" – A midrash emphasizes, "against your enemy – you wage war against your enemies." The Torah establishes that you will battle only those who show themselves to be your enemy, from whose enmity you have suffered, and from whom you anticipate acts of enmity. Therefore, even should you strike them, you shall only defend yourself. This message rejects all wars of conquest.

9.   Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:7
כשצרין על עיר לתפשה, אין מקיפין אותה מארבע רוחותיה אלא משלש רוחותיה, ומניחין מקום לבורח ולכל מי שירצה להמלט על נפשו
When besieging a city to capture it, we do not surround it on its four sides, but only from three sides. And we leave a space to flee, and all who wish may flee for their lives.

10.      Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 9:14
חייבין להושיב דיינין ושופטים בכל פלך ופלך לדון בשש מצות אלו, ולהזהיר את העם... ומפני זה נתחייבו כל בעלי שכם הריגה, שהרי שכם גזל והם ראו וידעו ולא דנוהו...
Noachides are obligated to establish judges in every place to judge these six commands and instruct the nation… and this is why all of the members of Shechem were liable for death. Shechem kidnapped, and they saw and knew and did not judge him

11.      Devarim 9:5
לֹא בְצִדְקָתְךָ וּבְיֹשֶׁר לְבָבְךָ אַתָּה בָא לָרֶשֶׁת אֶת־אַרְצָם כִּי בְּרִשְׁעַת הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה ד' אֱלֹקֶיךָ מוֹרִישָׁם מִפָּנֶיךָ...
Not due to your righteousness and the straightness of your heart do you come to take their land, but due to the wickedness of these nations does your G-d take them from before you…

12.      Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Amud haYemini 16:2
אין יסוד מספיק להתיר פעולה נגד הציבור שנמנע למלא חובתו ולבער מתוכו את המרצחים, כל עוד שיתכן שיש להם אמתלא של פחד או לחץ וכוצא בו.
There are insufficient grounds to permit action against a community that refuses to fulfill its obligation and eliminate murderers from their midst, so long as they may have the excuse of fear, pressure and the like.

13.      Rabbi Yehudah Loeb (Maharal), Gur Aryeh to Bereishit 34:13
ואף על גב דאמרה התורה (דברים כ, י) "כי תקרב אל עיר להלחם עליה וקראת אליה לשלום", היינו היכי דלא עשו לישראל דבר, אבל היכי דעשו לישראל דבר, כגון זה שפרצו בהם לעשות להם נבלה, אף על גב דלא עשה רק אחד מהם - כיון דמכלל העם הוא, כיון שפרצו להם תחלה - מותרים ליקח נקמתם מהם.
Deuteronomy 20:10 says, "you shall call to it for peace", but that is where they have not acted upon Israel. Where they have acted toward Israel, such as here [Shechem] where they had broken forth, doing this repellent thing, then even though only one of them had done it, since they had attacked first, Israel was permitted to respond. So, too, for all wars, even where only one of them had acted, he is part of the nation. Since they attacked first, we were permitted to go to war against them…

14.      Talmud Yerushalmi, Sheviit 6:1
שלש פרסטיניות שלח יהושע לארץ ישראל עד שלא יכנסו לארץ מי שהוא רוצה להפנות יפנה להשלים ישלים לעשות מלחמה יעשה
Joshua sent three messages into Israel, before the Jews entered the land: Those who want to leave, may do so. Those who want to make peace, may do so. Those who want to make war, may do so.

15.      Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:1
אין עושין מלחמה עם אדם בעולם עד שקוראין לו שלום אחד מלחמת הרשות ואחד מלחמת מצוה, שנאמר כי תקרב אל עיר להלחם עליה וקראת אליה לשלום, אם השלימו וקבלו שבע מצות שנצטוו בני נח עליהן אין הורגין מהן נשמה והרי הן למס, שנאמר יהיו לך למס ועבדוך
We may not declare war upon any human being, anywhere, until we first sue for peace. This applies both to "authorized wars" and "obligatory wars," as it is written, "When you draw near to a city to fight against her, you shall call to her for peace." Should they make peace and accept the laws in which Noachides are instructed, we would not kill anyone there. We would collect taxes, as it is written, "They will be tribute to you, and will serve you."

16.      Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Bereishit 34:25
עתה מתחילה הגנות, ואין בדעתנו לחפות עליה. אילו הרגו את שכם וחמור, ודאי היה הדין עמהם. אך הם לא חסו על אנשים חסרי מגן, המסורים בידיהם בלא כוח. גדולה מזו, הם שדדו, ובדרך כלל פקדו על אנשי העיר את עוון אדוניהם. לכך לא היתה כל הצדקה.
Now the disgrace begins, and we do not intend to cover it up. Had they killed Shechem and Chamor, justice would certainly have been with them. But they did not spare the defenseless men who were given into their hands, who had no strength. Worse, they looted, and generally made the inhabitants pay for the crime of their master. For this there was no justification.

17.      Rabbi Avraham Shapira, War and Ethics, Techumin 4, pg. 182
כל עוד אין סכנה ממשית לחיילינו אין היתר לפגוע בנפש ואף לא ברכוש. אולם כאשר הסכנה היא מוחשית, הרי שיש לזכור שעל כף המאזניים אין עומדת רק היחידה הלוחמת מול האוכלוסיה האזרחית, איבודה של יחידה אחת או חלק ממנה עלול לפגוע במערכת המלחמה כולה.
When there is no substantive risk to our soldiers, there is no permission to strike lives or property. However, when there is a discernible risk, one must remember that it is not only a matter of weighing one unit opposite a civilian population on the scale. The loss of one unit, or part of it, can affect the entire battle…

18.      Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Ethics and War, Techumin 4, pg. 185
המחיר נתבע גם מהאויב, שאף הוא נחון בצלם אלוהים, ויש לדאוב בכל מקרה שמעשה ידיו של הקב"ה טובעים בים. בנקודה זו מהווה הגורם הכמותי גורם בעל משמעות, ויש בהחלט לשקול את מידת הצידוק שבפגיעה ברבים על מנת להציל את היחיד.
The price [of war] is also paid by the enemy, who is also graced with the Divine image, and one should grieve whenever G-d's creations drown in the sea. On this point, the issue of quantity is meaningful, and one certainly must weigh the justifications for harming many in order to save an individual.

The eternal war with Amalek: Where does it come from, and where is it going?
19.      Verses of Amalek
  • Bereishit 36:12                        Amalek is the grandson of Esav
  • Shemot 17                    Amalek's first unprovoked attack in the wilderness
  • Bamidbar 14                Amalek's second unprovoked attack in the wilderness
  • Devarim 25                  Amalek's first unprovoked attack in the wilderness, re-told
  • Shoftim 3                      Amalek and Moav join forces against the Jews
  • Shoftim 6                      Amalek and Midian join forces against the Jews
  • Shemuel I 15                King Saul leads a war against Amalek
  • Shemuel I 27                Future-King David raids Amalek
  • Shemuel I 30                Amalek burns down the Jewish city of Tziklag
  • Shemuel II 1                  An Amalekite claims to have murdered King Saul
  • Divrei haYamim I 4       The tribe of Shimon wages war upon Amalek

20.      Talmud Yerushalmi, Yevamot 2:6
"כי המן בן המדתא". וכי בן המדתא היה? אלא צורר בן צורר אוף הכא קוצץ בן קוצץ.
"For Haman, son of Hamedata" – Was Haman really a son of Hamedata? No; the text is simply identifying Haman as an enemy, "son of" an enemy.

21.      Talmud, Gittin 57b
מבני בניו של המן למדו תורה בבני ברק
Some of Haman's grandchildren learned Torah in Bnei Brak.

22.      Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny, footnote 25, citing Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik
If any people seeks to destroy us, we are commanded to do battle against it when it rises up against us, and this battle of ours is an obligatory war on the basis of the verse from Exodus (17:16), "The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation."

23.      Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, pg. 1
In the spring of 2004, as this book was slouching toward completion, Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the New Yorker about a series of disturbIing interviews he had recently conducted with Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. "The Palestinians are Amalek," he was told by Benzi Lieberman, chairman of the Council of Settlements. "We will destroy them," Lieberman continued. "We won't kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism." And Moshe Feiglin, a leading Likud activist, told Goldberg: "The Arabs engage in typical Amalek behavior. I can't prove this genetically, but this is the behavior of Amalek."

The bloody war of Purim: How bloody was it?
24.      Esther 8:5-8
וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב וְאִם־מָצָאתִי חֵן לְפָנָיו וְכָשֵׁר הַדָּבָר לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְטוֹבָה אֲנִי בְּעֵינָיו יִכָּתֵב לְהָשִׁיב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִים מַחֲשֶׁבֶת הָמָן בֶּן־הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב לְאַבֵּד אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל־מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ... וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וּלְמָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי הִנֵּה בֵית־הָמָן נָתַתִּי לְאֶסְתֵּר וְאֹתוֹ תָּלוּ עַל־הָעֵץ עַל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַח יָדוֹ בַּיְּהוּדִים: וְאַתֶּם כִּתְבוּ עַל־הַיְּהוּדִים כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ וְחִתְמוּ בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי־כְתָב אֲשֶׁר־נִכְתָּב בְּשֵׁם־הַמֶּלֶךְ וְנַחְתּוֹם בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין לְהָשִׁיב:
And Esther said: If it would be good before the king, and if I have found favour before him, and if it would be appropriate before the king, and if I would be good in his eyes, let it be recorded to retract the scrolls, the plan of Haman son of Hamedata the Aggagite, who has written to destroy the Jews in all of the king's lands!...
And King Achashverosh said to Queen Esther and to Mordechai the Jew: Behold, I have given the house of Haman to Esther, and they have hung him upon the tree for sending his hand against the Jews. Now, write upon the Jews as is good in your eyes in the name of the king, and seal it with the king's ring, for one may not retract a text written in the king's name and sealed with the king's ring.

25.      Esther 8:10-11
וַיִּכְתֹּב בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ וַיַּחְתֹּם בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים בְּיַד הָרָצִים בַּסּוּסִים רֹכְבֵי הָרֶכֶשׁ הָאֲחַשְׁתְּרָנִים בְּנֵי הָרַמָּכִים: אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל־עִיר־וָעִיר לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל־נַפְשָׁם לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת־כָּל־חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם טַף וְנָשִׁים וּשְׁלָלָם לָבוֹז:
And he wrote in the name of King Achashverosh… that the king had permitted the Jews of every city to gather and stand upon their lives, to destroy and kill and eliminate the collective might of the nations who had besieged them, children and women, and take their spoils.

26.      Esther 9:15-16
וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר־בְּשׁוּשָׁן גַּם בְּיוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר וַיַּהַרְגוּ בְשׁוּשָׁן שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וּבַבִּזָּה לֹא שָׁלְחוּ אֶת־יָדָם: וּשְׁאָר הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בִּמְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ נִקְהֲלוּ וְעָמֹד עַל־נַפְשָׁם וְנוֹחַ מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם וְהָרֹג בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם חֲמִשָּׁה וְשִׁבְעִים אָלֶף וּבַבִּזָּה לֹא שָׁלְחוּ אֶת־יָדָם
And the Jews of Shushan gathered on the 14th of Adar as well, and they killed in Shushan 300 men, and they did not extend their hand to the spoils. And the rest of the Jews in the king's lands gathered and stood for their lives, and gained reprieve from their foes, and killed their enemies, 75,000, and they did not extend their hand to the spoils.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Supreme Court of Canada Recognizes a Right to Die

This past Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal ban on assisting suicide violates the rights of Canadian citizens. As they put it here, "The prohibition on physician‑assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." They ruled that the prohibition is "of no force or effect to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition." The Canadian legislature now has twelve months to re-write the law to accommodate the view of the Supreme Court.

This is not the space for a full treatment of this subject (feel free to come to my upcoming talk on the subject at Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto on February 23rd). I will not go into halachah here, other than to say that Jewish law is very clear in forbidding actively ending a patient's life.

In this space, I'd just like to point out a tried and true legal principle: Hard cases make bad law. It would be inhuman and un-Jewish to deny the wishes of people who are suffering without remedy - but crafting legislation to address exceptionally difficult situations will produce laws that endanger the rest of society.

Here are some of the challenges such laws would need to address:
* Will we impose age limits, or will we go the way of Belgium, which permits the death of minors? In the Netherlands, a 17 year old - who cannot be trusted to vote - can override parental  refusal and choose death.

* How will we avoid pressure on patients to choose assisted death? As Margaret Dore, a lawyer in the state of Washington, has testified from her experience with their legalized assisted suicide, the existence of this option leads to subtle and unsubtle pressure upon patients to choose death.

* Who will advise the patient in this matter? Will we ask doctors, who function as the protectors of our healthcare resources, to counsel patients on whether or not to tax those resources? [Indeed, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada notes that doctors must be able to "Appreciate the possibility of conflict inherent in their role as a health advocate for a patient or community with that of manager or gatekeeper".]

* Who will testify as to the patient's wishes, where the patient cannot speak? Paragraph 27 of Quebec's Assisted Suicide bill permits relatives to testify [only minors and members of the healthcare "team" may not do so]. Mind you, our Succession Law will not allow relatives to testify regarding the authenticity of a will, because of conflict of interest... but they could testify that a patient wanted to die?

* Will physicians be compelled to help end lives of patients? As noted by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, physicians are not necessarily permitted to refuse to treat on moral or religious grounds.

* Who is going to pay for this - should OHIP (Ontario's provincial health insurance), which doesn't cover routine dental and eye exams, pay for death? [Paragraph 26 of Quebec's Act seems to say that Quebec's provincial health insurance does cover the cost of ending a patient's life.] And if not, then could a suffering person be denied death - a human right, per the Supreme Court - because he couldn't pay for it?

As I said above, we must find a way to help people who are suffering. But in my view, licensing assisted suicide is fraught with so many problems as to make responsible legislation an impossibility.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why ISIS burned the pilot

Since ISIS began spreading a video showing their burning of captured Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasaesbeh, various writers have tried to explain the psychology behind both the burning and its publication. CNN posted a piece suggesting the act was meant to communicate fearlessness. Forbes added that it was a recruiting tool, meant to appeal to those who would find it attractive. The Observer explained the video as intimidation of potential opposition.

I believe there is merit to all of those points, but to me there is another, deeper issue involved: Religion. Put simply, burning Moath al-Kasaesbeh alive, and posting the video, was not necessarily part of  a strategy. Rather, it was a religious act for ISIS. Indeed, along with the video they disseminated "talking points" providing an Islamic justification for their actions.

It is fundamental to the nature of a religious cult that members of the cult see inherent beauty in fulfilling its religious demands - and the more demanding, the better. To a member of a religious cult, the sight of cult members joyously carrying out their duties is the most attractive and inspiring scene imaginable. (Indeed, ISIS made sure to air footage of cheering crowds, including young children.)  As far as the objections of outsiders - they are simply uninformed non-initiates, who don't understand. So ISIS had no concern for international revulsion; to them, any objective observer would recognize the beauty in the burning. Anyone else is simply a fool unworthy of consideration.

But if that's correct, then we must ask: what about us? Jews also see inherent beauty in fulfillment of our religion's demands. And indeed, when people outside our community express hostile opinions of our practices - shechitah (kosher animal slaughter), for example, or brit milah (circumcision) - we, too, might write them off as uninformed. So if religious fervor can so drastically corrupt the human moral compass, how can we prevent ourselves from misinterpreting Judaism and descending to ISIS-level depravity?

Judaism has an important, albeit fragile, safety net: respect for the opinion of non-Jewish society. From the biblical message (Bereishit 1:27) that all human beings are created "in the image of G-d"...

to the biblical examples of non-Hebrews like Malkitzedek (Bereishit 14) and Yitro (Shemot 18) as people whose opinions mattered to our righteous ancestors...

to the talmudic declaration that "The law of the government is the law" (Bava Kama 113a)...

to the talmudic observation that "The pious of the nations of the world also gain admittance to the next world" (Taanit 29a, Yalkut Shimoni 765)...

to the legal obligation of kiddush HaShem (sanctifying G-d's Name in the eyes of the world) (Yechezkel 38:23, Yoma 86a, Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2:5)...

...Jewish tradition teaches the Jew to value the opinion of his non-Jewish neighbours. Not to the extent of denying G-d's Word and cancelling the Torah, but to the extent of compelling us to think very carefully when our values don't fit those of general society, and to accept outside wisdom when appropriate.

Of course, there are areas in which the Torah's laws ultimately do run counter to society's values, where society and Jewish tradition view each other reciprocally as benighted. Some areas cannot be reconciled, and that's why I view this safety net as "fragile". But overall, our respect for the opinions of those who are outside our circle plays an important self-policing role, ensuring that we do not fall into self-absorbed, ISIS-style excesses. Thank G-d for this very important element of Judaism.

May we always be careful to preserve that respect, and the self-awareness it brings.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The War on Miriam?

While preparing a class on Miriam last week, I came across essays (here and here) which show that Josephus and Pseudo-Philo, in the first century CE, presented a diminished version of the midrashic tradition regarding Miriam.

In rabbinic tradition - which Josephus and Pseudo-Philo demonstrate that they knew, even as they report it in an altered form - Amram and Yocheved, parents of Miriam and Aharon, separate from each other when Pharaoh decrees the death of Jewish baby boys. Miriam reports a prophetic vision that her parents will produce a son who will rescue the Jews, and she convinces them to return to each other. Then, when that baby (Moshe) is put into a box in the river, Miriam stands guard over him. [See Exodus 2 and Talmud Megilah 14a.]

In Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews II 9:3-4, per the Whiston translation available here, there is no separation of husbands and wives. Amram has a vision that his son will rescue the Jews from Egypt, and Miriam goes to the water to watch over Moshe only because her mother has told her to do so.

In Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities of Philo 9, per the James translation available here, the husbands and wives separate, but Amram is the one to insist that Jews continue to have children. Miriam does then have a vision regarding Moshe, but she does not watch over Moshe on the river at all.

What is this evisceration of Miriam's role about? Is it simply misogyny? Or an attempt to conceal from the Romans the possibility of Jewish insurrection, as represented by a fearless Miriam? Or something else entirely?