Recently, I received a question from a veterinarian: “A pet owner brought me his cat which is suffering from extreme weakness and can barely move. We took x-rays and consulted with experts from America, and it turns out that the cat suffers from an incurable, extremely painful degenerative disease. This being the case, I advised the owner to put the cat out of his suffering with anesthesia. However, the owner claims he consulted with a religious advisor who told him that it is forbidden to put the cat to sleep. We agreed to ask you, Rabbi, what the ‘halacha’ (Jewish law) says, and act accordingly.”
Answer: It is a mitzvah from the Torah not to cause pain to animals (Mishna Berura 32:2; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 272:10). Nevertheless, it should be made clear that the approach towards the life of animals is completely different from that of human life. The approach towards human life is one of sanctity. Man was created in the image of God, who breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and placed upon him the responsibility of ‘tikun olam’ (perfecting the world). Therefore, every second that the Divine soul rests in man is precious, and by no means should his life be shortened. And even if a person is tormented with the pains of a serious ailment, it is forbidden to kill him.
On the other hand, the life of animals is not so precious; the most important thing is not to cause them pain. Consequently, a person who has a cat or dog suffering from an incurable illness or injury, and it is evident that they are in great pain – it is preferable to kill them in a painless way in order to prevent suffering and misery. On the contrary – by killing them, one fulfills the mitzvah of preventing pain to animals.
Treating a Seriously Ill Person who Wishes to Die
Q: Is it permitted to stop giving food or liquids intravenously to a seriously ill patient who wishes to die?
A: Stopping the supply of liquids is considered murder (Talmud Sanhedrin 77a; Rambam, Laws of Murderer 3:10). And even if the bag of liquids connected to the patient has run out, the caregivers are obligated to renew the supply. Likewise, insulin must be given to a diabetic patient requiring it. The reasoning behind this is that the morality of the Torah is of an active nature. Not only is it forbidden to cause the death of a person, but there is an obligation to save his life, as it is written (Leviticus 19:16): “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger.”
The general rule is that all routine treatment must be given to the patient, even if he is in severe pain. But there is no obligation to give treatment that is considered extraordinary to a gravely ill patient who is suffering and wishes to die. For example, in the case of a seriously ill patient who suddenly stops breathing, or his heart stops beating, there is no obligation to perform resuscitation. Similarly, there is no obligation to give him medicines that might prolong his life (Minchat Shlomo 91:24, and this is also what Rabbi Goren wrote).
What to Decide
Q: What should a patient do in a situation where cancer has spread to many parts of his body to the point where his life cannot be saved, however, with chemotherapy or surgery, his life can be extended for another few days or weeks, but entailing great suffering? Is he obligated to receive the treatment and live a little longer in great pain, or is he permitted to avoid taking the medication?
A: A seriously ill patient is entitled to decide for himself what is most appropriate. If he is a God-fearing person with strength to accept agony, and asks what is preferable, he should be encouraged to take the life-extending medications, and told that one hour spent in repentance in this world is worth more than the whole life of the World to Come, and that he will be rewarded for taking them – living and enduring the pain a little longer in this world (Minchat Shlomo 91:24, Pininei Halacha Likutim, part 2, 15:4-7). It should be mentioned that today, there are effective sedatives that can make a seriously ill patient’s suffering tolerable.
Q: Is it permitted to give a patient a severe sedative, such as a large amount of morphine, which will significantly alleviate his suffering, but on the other hand, there is some concern that it might hasten his death?
A: A distressed patient may be given these medications, provided that the intended goal is to calm his pain, and not to shorten his life. Given that there is no certainty the drugs will cause his death, the fundamental obligation to do everything possible to make it easier for the patient to endure his suffering remains in effect. Additionally, the patient’s relatively good feeling might give him the strength to cope with the disease, so that ultimately, the sedatives will result in prolonging his life and not shortening it (Tzizt Eliezer 13:87; Nishmat Avraham, Yore’ah De’ah 339:4, in the name of Rav Aeurbach).
The Meeting between the ‘Nazir’ and Professor Gershom Shalom
The gaon, Rabbi Sha’ar Yishuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, told the story that once Professor Gershom Shalom, the renowned kabbalah scholar, came to see his father – Rabbi David Cohen, ‘The Nazarite’ ztz”l, and spoke for hours in a friendly and respectful atmosphere. At the end of the discussion, the Rabbi ‘Nazir’ turned to Professor Shalom, and with a smile said: “Reb Gershom, you could be an excellent ‘buchalter’ (bookkeeper) of kabbalah books, but you never will be a true ‘mekubal’ (kabbalist).
Incidentally, Professor Shalom apparently was not offended by this, because a number of times he wrote that the only living ‘mekubal’ in his generation was Rabbi Kook. All the rest were important and distinguished scholars of kabbalah, but not ‘mekubalim’ (like the Arizal, Ramchal, and so forth).
Professor Rivka Shatz
In regards to this, I will refer to Professor Rivka Shatz Oppenheimer z”l, who was one of the greatest scholars of kabbalah and Chassidut, and one of Professor Gershom Shalom’s most important students. For many years on a weekly basis she would visit our teacher and leader, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ztz”l, and learn with him. I personally saw her there a number of times, waiting to enter the Rabbi’s room, and as a very young boy, I couldn’t understand why this women was always there. Incidentally, the doctor who performed surgery on me half a year ago is her son; he and his brother would take turns driving their mother to Rabbi Kook’s house.
My friend, Rabbi Ze’ev Sultanovich, told me that Prof. Rivka Shatz related to him that once, Prof. Shalom met her by chance in the university, and asked how she was doing. In passing, she mentioned that she learned with Rabbi Kook. Prof. Shalom thought for a moment, and said with a tinge of regret: “Rivka, you have merited something I never have.”
Prof. Shatz also related that she was aware of Rabbi Kook’s critical opinion of Prof. Shalom’s research, but nevertheless, she never heard a negative word about him from Rabbi Kook. She highly respected the extent of his valor, refraining from trying to influence her in the matter.
Professor Shatz’s acquaintance with Rabbi Kook resulted in an in-depth study of the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook ztz”l, and a series of lectures in the Hebrew University which were received enthusiastically by hundreds of students. She also related that other professors would say to her jealously: “Rivka, when we see a group of students standing in fervent debate and discussion, we know they came out of your lecture on Rabbi Kook.”
She had prepared a rough copy of a broad introduction to the teachings of Rabbi Kook, but did not manage to complete it before her disease overcame her. I asked her son, the doctor, if he knew where the draft was, but he could not find it.
Professor Yosef Ben Shlomo
Interestingly, a similar process occurred with Professor Yosef Ben Shlomo z”l, a friend of Rivka Shatz, and a fellow student of Prof. Shalom. He also became exceptionally devoted to the teachings of Rabbi Kook, which he taught at Tel Aviv University. For several years, these lectures received the highest mark in student opinion polls. The university management always knew that when Prof. Ben Shlomo gave his course on Rabbi Kook, they had to assign him the largest lecture hall. When he was asked in an interview who he thought was the greatest Jew in recent generations, he answered: “Rabbi Kook, without a doubt.”
As part of his identification with the teachings of Rabbi Kook, Prof. Ben Shlomo relocated to the community of Kedumim in Samaria. He paid a visit to us once here in Har Bracha, and I visited him twice at his home. He possessed a deep desire to write a comprehensive book on the teachings of Rabbi Kook, a work which he labored upon for thirty years. But as he told me, he always preferred lecturing over the job of writing. He had rough drafts intended for a sizeable book, but with deep regret he told me he would not be able to complete and publish the book. When I asked him why, he told me that he was terminally ill.
These two distinguished scholars were bold supporters of the Greater Israel idea, and settlement in Judea and Samaria. ‘Woe for those who are lost to us, for their like cannot be found’.