Q. As a doctor I face human crises at both ends of life. One of the hardest challenges is treating the dying patient. Does Judaism have any advice for me?
A. Unlike some Christians, we do not regard death as greater than life nor feel that leaving this “vale of tears” is a triumph. We believe in life after death, but earthly existence is where one can really achieve things. Every stage of earthly life – up to the last moment – is a blessing.
In some cultures a dying person lost their value to society; Judaism said, hagosses k’chai l’chol d’varav, “the dying person is deemed alive in every respect”. We can break Shabbat to prolong a life even for a few minutes. If the gosses is “with it”, they have the full status of a person with emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social capabilities and are entitled to articulate their wishes and views.
Regardless of a patient’s condition, treatment must be continued. Who are we to play God and decide that a life no longer has any value, or to deny hope to anyone?
True, there is a time when artificial impediments to dying may be withheld, but this entails judging whether the patient is living or dying. A halachic rule says that if someone is dying and the noise of chopping wood is preventing the soul from departing, the noise should be stopped. There is a difficult boundary between living and dying. The benefit of the doubt should go to life.
Whenever I gave this advice, everyone felt relieved, though later there came a moment when death inexorably arrived.