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Morality: Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die
by Jack Riemer

There are two men I think about often, because of the way they lived, and the way they died.

One is Christopher Reeve. In a freak accident, the actor who played Superman fell off his horse, and upon landing, severed the connection between his brain and spine. In one minute he went from being an athlete and a movie star—Superman, no less—to a quadriplegic.

I have often wondered: What would I do if, God forbid, what happened to Christopher Reeve happened to me?

At first, Christopher Reeve told his wife, talking only through a gadget that the doctors placed in his throat: “I want to die.” His wife said: “If you are sure, if you are really, really sure this is what you want, I will help you die.” But she asked him: “Wait a while, just to make sure this is what you really want.”

In four months, he became a national spokesman for paraplegics. In six months, he testified on their behalf before Congress. In a year, he engaged in a campaign to raise money for research on debilitating spinal injuries. In a year and half, he appeared in a television drama about a character who could not speak or move. And in two years, when Barbara Walters asked him, “How are you doing?” he replied, “I’m busy, busy, busy.”

I know people who are not paraplegics who can’t say that they are busy, busy, busy, but that is what Christopher Reeve said to Barbara Walters, and his words have stayed in my heart.

After he became a paraplegic, Christopher Reeve chose to live.

But then I think of Motti Gur.

Motti Gur was the Israeli general who liberated Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. He led his soldiers into battle many times without fear.

But a few years ago, Motti Gur gave up. He’d had enough of battling cancer, and chose to surrender by shooting himself. He left behind a note explaining that he did not want to be a burden to his family.

Surely, none of us can judge what he did. We were not in his shoes and cannot know the pain he endured.

I ask myself often: Do I agree with Christopher Reeve who was busy, busy, busy until the day he died, or with Motti Gur, who surrendered when he saw he could not defeat cancer and bear its ravages?

I guess it depends on when you ask me.

I imagine, if you were to ask me after being in an intensive care unit for many weeks with excruciating pain, I would probably vote with Motti Gur. I would probably make the same decision if I were suffering from a dreadful, debilitating disease for which there was no cure, or if I were without hope, lingering and warehoused in a home.

But if you were to ask me on a day when I had some hope, some relief from pain, and a clear head, I think I would vote with Christopher Reeve.

I would vote with Christopher Reeve because we now have hospices and effective painkillers, and therefore can care for people even when we cannot cure them. In doing so, we give them precious time to add up their lives and give their blessings to their children.

I would vote with Christopher Reeve because of some of the other people who have voted as he did. Robert Louis Stevenson, for one, was desperately ill for many years, and yet, during those years, wrote a treasured book: Treasure Island.

Similarly, my hero, Franz Rosenweig, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the last century, was stricken with an incurable disease that, near the end of his life, prevented him from speaking or writing. He could only move one finger, and yet he and his helpers worked out a communication system: He pointed to a letter, and one of them would write it down. In this manner, he was able to write a commentary on Yehuda Halevi’s poetry, a commentary on the Psalms, and (with Martin Buber) a translation of the Bible into German. Services were also held in his bedroom on every Shabbat. Those who were there said it was a bright and happy place, not the dark, dreary enclave one might imagine.

I would vote with Christopher Reeve because of the mother of a friend of mine whose doctor told her she had only a few more months to live. My friend transferred her mother to another medical center, where she lived for eight more years, outliving that doctor. And, at the end, when the mother was dying, she patted her daughter on her hand and whispered, “Thank you for these last years.” Had my friend given up hope, which in effect is what the first doctor told her to do, she would have deprived her mother and herself of eight precious years, and of this last, sweet farewell.

I would vote with Christopher Reeve because I am afraid of the insurance industry—afraid that “the right to die” may, for financial reasons, soon become “the duty to die.” Once we permit the terminally ill to die, why not the sick? If the sick, why not the old? If the old, why not people we don’t like? Once we start down this slippery slope, where will it end?

And I would vote with Christopher Reeve because the bulk of Jewish tradition holds that all of life is precious and sacred; therefore, none of us has the right to destroy life, even our own.

But I feel for Motti Gur, too. He was given a hero’s burial in Israel; thousands who respected his decision attended his funeral. Indeed, a minority view within our tradition sides with him. The story is told of the maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi who, upon seeing her master suffer in excruciating pain while his fellow sages prayed fervently to keep him alive, shattered a dish, which interrupted their prayers long enough for him to die in peace. So, too, a view within Jewish law says: If a dying person is being kept alive by the noise of the workers outside, it is permitted to silence them.

Who then is right—Christopher Reeve or Motti Gur?

Whatever each of us decides, Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches us that we have an obligation to tell our family in advance, so they are not torn apart by having to make the decision for us: Who loved Daddy more—the sibling who believes it is merciful to let him go or the one who insists on medical measures to hold on to him as long as possible?

Perhaps the answer to who is right—Reeve or Gur—lies in one of the oldest Jewish jokes, one that many of us have heard and told, but that not everyone fully understands.

Two disputing litigants come before the rabbi. The first one speaks so reasonably that the rabbi says, “You’re right.” Then his opponent makes his case so convincingly that the rabbi says, “You’re right.” The eavesdropping rebbitzen (wife of the rabbi) exclaims, “Idiot! They are saying contradictory things. How can they both be right?” The rabbi contemplates her words and says to his wife: “You’re right, too.”

This story is more than just a joke. It is a reminder to all of us that when choosing to live or choosing to die, sometimes truth lies on more than one side.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the co-editor of
So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them (Jewish Lights Publishing) and the editor of the three volumes of The World of The High Holy Days (National Rabbinic Network).


Union for Reform Judaism.