Information and Independence

Rabbi Shabtai A. Rappoport

H. is a brilliant active young man, twenty years old, who last year contracted a severe case of lymphoma. After going through a successful bone marrow transplant his hopes were raised, but few months later the few remaining cancer cells attacked again, and he suffered a relapse. H. was a bit depressed at first, comprehending that he had to start fighting the cancer all over again, his body being much feebler now after the suffering caused by the previous procedures. Then his faith and will to live won over, and he decided to fight the disease until he got well. His physician started him on a new protocol of chemotherapy and H. hoped that he was well on his way to conquer his malady.

Being an avid Internet user, H. gleaned up to date information regarding his condition and his treatment, and was disconcerted to find out that the doses of his chemotherapy were sub-therapeutic. He confronted his physician, who at last admitted that H.'s information was accurate. The physician's reason for under treating H. was that he considered H.'s chances to recover so slim as to be non existent. It was therefore wrong in the physician's opinion to torture H. with a full course chemotherapy that will be futile. That is why he prescribed only small doses that will just alleviate H.'s pain for the time being. H. was furious. How come, he demanded to know, the physician did not supply him with the relevant information, and let him make his own decision? It was not in anyone's authority but his to decide whether to give up on his life or to try fighting. The doctor retorted that the burden of knowing that he was certain to die soon was by itself a danger to H.'s life and sanity, and since he was in charge of caring for H.'s health, it was his responsibility not to impart that knowledge to his patient. Was the doctor right, or was it his duty to present H. with the facts as he understood them, leaving H. to evaluate them on his own, and make his own decision as to the course of his treatment.

The commandment which relates to the obligation of caring for and returning lost property (Deut. XXII,2) states:

"And if your brother is not near you... you must bring it home and keep it until your brother identifies it, whereupon you must return it to him".
The final words "you must return it to him" seemed superfluous to the Sages, and they interpreted the "it" mentioned in this phrase as referring to "your brother" himself - not to his property. The phrase now takes a new meaning "return your brother (his life) to him again", namely, you are required to come to his rescue when his life is in danger and is about to be lost.

Rabbi Yosef Babad of Ternopol, of the 19th century, the author of the famous commentary Minchat Chinuch, points out (mitzva 237) that since the command to rescue one's life is part of the general law regarding the restoration of his property, it should be governed by the same parameters as that law. The above mentioned commandment states also (Deut. XXII,3): "You must do the same to... or anything else that your brother loses and you find, you must not ignore it". The phrase "that your brother loses" was interpreted (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Lost Property ch. 2 para. 2) to exclude property that was intentionally discarded or destroyed. Such a property might be ignored by the finder. Accordingly, when a person is attempting suicide, whereas he is discarding his life intentionally, one is not obliged to "return his life to him" - to rescue his life.

This argument was claimed by many rabbinical authorities to be basically faulty. A noted scholar of the early 20th century, Rabbi Yoav Weingarten of Kintzk, (Kaba De'Kashaita para. 1) postulates that Man does not own his life - G-d does - hence committing suicide is rather like discarding property which does not belong to the person who is relinquishing it. When one sees an attempted willful destruction of property by an outside thief or vandal, he is certainly commanded to try and rescue the legitimate owner's possessions. Similarly, when one observes an attempted suicide he must try to restore the life about to be lost to G-d and seek to stop the suicide.

Rabbi Weingarten notes, however, a challenge to the above principle. The Torah (Ex. XXII,1) rules: "If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he dies, he has no blood". A burglar is considered to be a potential murderer, who will kill whoever stands up against him. Thus killing a housebreaker is an act of self defense, and hence "he has no blood". The Sages (Sanhedrin 72,b) ruled that since the thief "has no blood", if an accident takes place while he was committing larceny, and he got severely wounded, his life need not be saved. Moreover, Shabbat may not be violated in order to save him. Obviously being mortally hurt, the thief poses no danger to anybody, and there is no self defense consideration in not treating him. The only possible reasoning behind this ruling is that since the burglar compromised his life by breaking into the premises, his life is not to be saved. If his postulate was true, and a person does not own his life, how could he relinquish it?

The most outstanding Halacha authority in our times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Vol. 5 Yore Dea II res.174) argues Rabbi Weingarten's axiom. He takes for granted that a person indeed owns his life, and is responsible for it. He finds a different flaw in Rabbi Babad's argument. Not every decision a person makes regarding his life has legal consequences, only decisions deemed rational are regarded effective. A person may relinquish his property, and the outcome will be that it does not have to be restored to him. But a person's resolve to give up his life, does not result in any change regarding the obligation to restore "him to himself", because Law does not recognize such a resolution.

This argument fully explains why house breaker's life is not to be saved. His action indeed relinquishes his life in the eyes of the Law - "he has no blood", and once his life is considered intentionally discarded, it does not have restored, even when he no more poses an active danger.

A decision to fight for one's life is certainly rational and once taken by the individual should be respected and acted upon. H.'s doctor had no right to decide to give up on H.'s life, and hide information from him. Even if under the given circumstances such a decision may have some merit, it should be taken by no other than the person who owns this life - the patient himself who must be considered totally independent in making it..

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