A Silent, Brutal Death

I'm sure that I speak for many of us here in Israel when I wish the Schindler family condolences and hope that they find comfort.

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Ellen W. Horowitz

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"The moral law can never be legislated in ultimate terms by the human mind." -- Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik

Make no mistake about the Terri Schiavo case. It was impeccably constitutional and went off without a hitch. This time around, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the US government executed a flawlessly synchronized checks-and-balances performance. The tenet separating church and state held firm and refused to buckle under significant pressure.

The arguments were compelling and the race against time, heart-wrenching. But make no mistake about Terri Schiavo's death. In a two week period, she was dehydrated and starved to death, sliced open for an autopsy and cremated - and the entire process was scrupulously executed according to the law of the land. America must be so proud.

Pretty gruesome stuff, and that a good portion of the public could comfortably watch this chapter live on CNN, over a plate of lasagna, makes one kind of wonder who's the truly brain-damaged and comatose party.

Make no mistake, Terri's demise was a miserable and colossal moral failure.

Sentencing a brain-damaged woman to death by dehydration and starvation is an embarrassingly barbaric and pitiful solution for a modern, purportedly evolved, world. Regardless of which side of the argument one takes, this should have been a humbling moment for humanity.

How limited and primitive we are.

Much of the discussion surrounding the case circumvented the moral crux of the issue, and instead was directed towards the matters of personal, spousal and parental rights, and whether or not the victim would feel the pain of death.

But behind the scenes, this was clearly a battle between individual rights and moral obligations; between the takers and the givers; and between the material and incorporeal worlds. The hands-down verdict is that we live in a very selfish and material world.

Today, at least in the West, most individuals place great emphasis on the quality and comfort of their personal lives, as well as their personal freedoms and rights. I suppose it's expected and certainly permissible that human beings living a physical existence would naturally tend to gravitate towards, and place emphasis on, the material rather than the spiritual. However, an immense problem is created when a society structures itself on legislative and judicial foundations that, for the most part, underscore personal freedoms and individual rights, while compartmentalizing or excluding religious doctrine based on moral responsibility.

The prevalent attitude of "what's coming to me?", "what's in it for me?", and "what value is it to me?", has created a society of takers and self-centered consumers. This attitude, taken to its extreme, produced a legal system that condoned the taking of a handicapped woman's life and demonstrated a gross disregard for her body and soul. I believe this constitutes the worst possible type of theft. And after all, isn't that what murder is - robbery in the extreme?

Jewish law would not sanction the type of death Terri endured, because traditional Judaism places an emphasis on obligations rather than rights . Our responsibility towards G-d and our fellowman supersedes our personal freedoms.

Although we can't always understand the meaning behind some of our seemingly disproportionate or unfair trials and challenges, we nevertheless strive to accept them as part of a Divine plan. Ideally, any good fortune, assets or possessions one acquires in this world - whether material or spiritual - are to be regarded as gifts or blessings from G-d; life itself being the ultimate gift - even one which appears to be vegetative and physically unproductive.

However, the beauty of the modern world is that we have created tools and support systems that can and should encourage us to face-up to our trials and assist us in carrying our burdens. Those devices, however, should not be employed as a quick fix to rid us of our challenges.

Now, on to the pain...

Neurologists assured us that removal of Terri's feeding and hydration tube would result in a painless death. But even contemporary science recognizes the plausibility that there exists other levels and dimensions of consciousness that our top researchers have yet to discover. Indeed, maybe they'll never be discovered, as comprehending those states could be beyond the reach of our limited intellectual capabilities. Are our egos are so grand and intellect so blinding that we can't acknowledge the existence of a soul? Maybe Terri's soul was hungry, thirsty and tortured for two weeks. Maybe her silent screams manifested themselves through the pleas and anguish of her parents. After all, it was Terri's parents, not her husband, who have a flesh and blood connection.

We're told that she wouldn't have wanted to live that way (I guess we'll never know). But Terri was indeed alive, and seemingly content in her own world - as inconvenient at that world was to others (and isn't that the real issue here?).

When our scientists, doctors, legislatures, judges, intellectuals, and even clerics and family members become cognizant of their limitations and internalize an awareness of something greater than themselves, then the fear of G-d will enter the picture. We humans will then become acutely aware of those responsibilities outside of ourselves. We will become givers and not takers, and we will strive for true justice and morality. When that happens, we will be that much closer to a redeemed world and to finding a truly just solution for people like Terri.

I'm sure that I speak for many of us here in Israel when I wish the Schindler family condolences and hope that they find comfort.


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