Judaism, across the denominational lines, emphasizes the dignity and sanctity of life.
Yet, Tradition understands that at certain time and in certain contexts, the value of dignity and sanctity may rest in allowing a life to end. Medical technology has made these decisions ever more personal and, often, ever more complex. This is why it is so important to have a conversation within your family as to one’s wishes. Consultation with your rabbi is very important as there may be differences in approaches depending on where one rests on the denominational spectrum. If you cannot access a rabbi, speak with the hospital or a professional counselors. Every branch of contemporary American Judaism supports hospice, favors organ donation and encourages the development of an Advanced Medical Directive (“living will”) and Health Care Power of Attorney. The more these issues are discussed, the greater the chance that one’s life will reflect the values of dignity and sanctity; even at life’s end.
Jewish tradition has texts that suggest how one should visit a sick person. It is one of our highest mitzvoth to visit. Increasingly, people choose to remain at home, if at all possible. This may not be possible in your case. Try and surround a person with as much familiar objects as possible. There are few things more frightening than a feeling of being alone and isolated. Jewish tradition sees little, if any, value in pain and suffering. Thus, palliative care is a major tool in creating a personal environment that supports dignity and sanctity. One’s care team should be interested in learning the beliefs and feelings of the patient. It is important to let those who are caring for someone, what that person’s beliefs (or lack thereof) are so that a healing and supportive environment can be maintained.
Rituals & Symbols
Jewish tradition is rich in the use of prayer and ritual. The prayer for healing (mi’she’berach) is often recited at bedside or, in the synagogue. Often, the person’s Hebrew name is used. There are rituals as well for when life ebbs. A short death bed confession is sometimes recited with the person, if they are capable. In certain cases, a rabbi may be asked to give a patient a new Hebrew name so as to confuse the “angel of death”. Increasingly, families are creating their own more personalized prayers or rituals that bring comfort to a person. The tradition also has a wealth of rituals that emerge following death. Those that involve the time from death to burial and the period of mourning (shiva) can be confusing and those questions need to be discussed with your rabbi. One of the frequently asked questions in recent times has involved cremation. Traditional Judaism still does not sanction this practice, while, increasingly, the more liberal branches of contemporary Judaism allow for this ritual. As we have stated, it is always best to consult your rabbi or a source with knowledge of Jewish practice.
Just about every branch of contemporary Judaism has resources available, often on-line. The rabbi will be the best person to contact for these or, a professional counselors who has some familiarity with Jewish sources. There are differences in approaches in some end of life decisions and in some of the practices associated with burial and mourning.