Should Assisted Suicide Be Legalized? A Jewish Perspective

Aryeh Klapper

Autonomy and dignity are standard grounds for arguments supporting the legalization of assisted suicide.  The prima facie case is excellent: forbidding suicide limits human autonomy, and compelling people to live against their will diminishes their self-determination and therefore their dignity. Counter-arguments often rest on assertions about the supreme value of life, even when life lacks autonomy or dignity. These assertions appear sectarian and therefore fail to convince when invoked in secular contexts.  There is, accordingly, a grave risk that public discourse about assisted suicide will come to mirror that regarding abortion, in which religious belief and modern liberalism are incompatible foes rather than partners. 

Jewish tradition provides resources for an alternative discourse that is hospitable to religion but takes place within a framework that valorizes autonomy and dignity. Below, I present some of  those resources in their own terms while also showing how they can be applied to construct discourse in the secular public space.

The “Equally Red Blood” Principle

Jewish law sees the text of the Torah and a form of moral reasoning called sevara as independently legitimate sources of Divine law. In some cases, the Talmud argues that the sevara is so obvious that a Torah verse confirming it would be redundant. Following the rabbinic premise that nothing in Torah is redundant, verses that appear to communicate principles discoverable by sevara are reinterpreted to teach something else.  This suggests that sevara is epistemologically antecedent o Torah, and accordingly meets the standard for nonsectarian ethics: it is universally accessible and universally applicable.

This antecedence is dramatically evident in Talmudic discussions about what actions Judaism requires an adherent to die rather than perform.  Jewish law maintains that almost all religious duties and prohibitions may be ignored in cases where observance proves life-threatening. However, there are three offenses—murder, sexual sin, and idolatry—for which adhering to the law takes precedence over saving one’s life.  The duty to die rather than commit idolatry is derived from a verse, and the primacy of avoiding incest and adultery is derived from a verse that compares rape to murder. But the duty to be killed rather than murder another is itself derived from sevara. In other words, the meaning of the verse comparing rape to murder can be discovered only after the sevara regarding murder is known.   

The sevara demanding that we choose death over murder is presented in a narrative. An anonymous man tells the sage Rava that his feudal lord has ordered him to kill an innocent third party, and the penalty for disobedience is death.  Rava responds: “Be killed, but don’t kill! Who can say that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder!” Rava’s question is rhetorical; he would not accept any explanation of why one person’s blood is redder. In other words, Rava holds that it is a self-evident truth that all human beings are created ontologically equal, and that they remain so throughout their lives.

Life is a Crucial but Not Supreme Value

The “Equally Red Blood” principle is necessary to ban murder for self-preservation because Jewish tradition otherwise treats lifesaving as an almost supreme value; it allows the violation of all prohibitions except idolatry, adultery and incest, and murder. 

That life outweighs almost all prohibitions is seemingly derived from the text of Leviticus 18:5: “These are the commandments that a human being shall perform and live by them”.  The Rabbis noted that “live by them” suggests that one need not perform them when that will lead to death; but also that “these” implies a “those”, namely idolatry etc.

The need for a Biblical proof text suggests that the default is that one maynever do wrong to avoid dying.  However, Jewish tradition concludes that this is only true parochially, for Jews, because they are commanded to sanctify God’s Name even at the cost of their lives. Gentiles are not so commanded.  Therefore, the verse would be redundant if it only covered Gentiles, because the default sevara is that the preservation of life overrides all prohibitions (except those against taking life). 

What is that sevara? Before settling on the verse “and live by them”, the Talmud entertains a set of other suggested sources for the rule that lifesaving overrides observance of Shabbat.  One of these is a sevara – “You (the lifesaver) must desecrate one Shabbat so that he (the person whose life you are saving) may observe many Shabbats”. This derivation is given legal force in the tradition, even though it is not the primary derivation.  Its implication is that what makes life so valuable is that life brings with it the capacity to do worthwhile things. This is not the sole ground for valuing life, but it is vital for its place in the Jewish hierarchy of values.

Application

The fact of mortality intrinsically and ineluctably diminishes the dignity of human beings. Human beings can choose when to die, in the sense that they can choose to die sooner; but we cannot choose not to die.  However, a reasonable argument can be made that, at least under some circumstances, an autonomously chosen time and mode of death produces less indignity than otherwise. Under such circumstances, there is significant political support for making it legal to assist people who have chosen such a time and mode in implementing their choice. 

Nonetheless, the default setting of American society is that suicide is tragic, and the product either of mental illness, unbearable suffering, or moral failure. We generally presume that someone seeking to jump off a bridge should be persuaded not to; someone found with slashed wrists should be hospitalized; and so forth, without extensive prior inquiry into whether choosing death will enhance their dignity.  The rising suicide rate is regarded as an “epidemic” and as a healthcare crisis.

The obvious way to square these two attitudes – the default against suicide and the support for assisted suicide – is to say that we evaluate some lives as less worth preserving than others. We see suicide as an unreasonable choice for the young and healthy, with emotionally satisfying relationships, and so forth.  But we see suicide as a reasonable choice for, say, the terminally ill, or for those facing dementia or complete paralysis.

Put differently: We decide that the blood of some people is less red than that of other people. 

The counterargument from Jewish tradition is not that life is of supreme value, but rather that all lives are of equal value. Supporting some suicides while preventing others violates this principle of ontological equality. Such violations may be intrinsically wrong, on grounds that have universal appeal. Opposing such distinctions may also be good public policy on slippery slope grounds. 

Proponents argue that legalizing assisted suicide is proper because it maximizes autonomy and dignity. The counterargument from Jewish tradition is not that life is more valuable than autonomy and dignity, but that life derives its value, or ‘the redness of its blood’, from the capacity to choose, and that we ought not judge some opportunities to choose to be more valuable than others. Choosing death is a claim that all one’s other choices are meaningless, in other words that one’s blood is no longer red at all. Assisting a suicide validates that claim. 

Caveat and Conclusion

I have argued that Jewish tradition provides two secularly useful arguments against legalizing assisted suicide. First, Jewish tradition asserts the ontological equality of all human lives, whereas legalizing assisting some but not all suicides requires the claim that some lives are more valuable than others.  Second, Jewish tradition argues that life is valuable because it enables autonomous choice, whereas assisted suicide declares future choices to be worthless. I need to make clear that these are arguments against legitimization and legalization, but they do not necessarily imply that suicide is always unjustifiable. In fact, while Jewish legal texts universally deprecate suicide in general, many Jewish narrative texts valorize specific suicides.  This gap requires explanation.

My suggestion is that Jewish tradition distinguishes between legal ethics and case ethics. Laws create general policies, and general policies will always yield wrong outcomes in some outlier cases.  More strongly – there is a class of actions that can be ethical only when they are taken in full awareness that they are legally proscribed, and ideally punishable, unless the courts choose to exercise discretion not to prosecute. Jewish markers for that class include principles like “sinning for the sake of Heaven”, which valorizes illegal actions engaged in to successfully achieve a greater good, and “zealots attack him”, which tolerates a kind of vigilante justice in flagrante for some kinds of offenses. I have argued elsewhere that this is the proper category for the case of torture in “ticking bomb” cases.  

Assisted suicide, and perhaps suicide more generally, may fall into this category as well. The proper policy is to create an enormously powerful default in favor of the value of life. Legalizing assisted suicide has the effect of enlisting the state as a moral supporter of the decision for death, and of the proposition that the lives of some citizens are less valuable than those of others. It therefore may have the ironic impact of making assisted suicide absolutely unjustifiable morally.


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and a member of the Boston Beit Din. He is a popular lecturer who is consulted internationally on issues of Jewish law and whose work is cited regularly by both academic and traditional scholars.  His writings have appeared in Tradition, Meorot, Dinei Yisrael, Beit Yitzchak and other journals, and has presented at numerous academic and community conferences.