The Jewish Tradition and Choices at the End of Life

by Lewis D. Solomon

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


This is a very personal book for anyone who reads it. The book deals with intimate concerns: life, death and dying. Medical care at the end of one’s life often involve wrenching decisions. The book has three purposes. First, it will help you and your loved ones make better, more informed choices as you face: the onset of a terminal illness or an incurable, chronic, debilitating condition, a lengthy period of debility and frailty, with ever greater and more demeaning physical and mental weakness and dependency; or a hopeless medical condition defining the final agony of a fatal illness. To put it bluntly, do you want to engage in a preemptive, self-chosen death at any point along the trajectory of your illness or condition? For nearly all of us, it’s not, nor should it be, a straight line decision fight on to the bitter end or let’s get it over with now.

Each of us differs in our approach to death and dying. A few find comfort when faced with death; most are filled with terror. Some may fear the process of dying because of the prospect of experiencing unimaginable pain and suffering; others welcome death because of the expectation of relief from their pain and suffering. This is not a book with simple, pat answers to the complex choices we face at the end of life. It’s not neatly etched in black or white. Would that it could be so, but it’s not. As we’ll see, it’s a spiritual, emotional and psychological natter of considerable ambiguity. Through this book, I hope to provide the tools you and your loved ones need to make sound, rational, intelligent choices, rather than decisions shaped by a large measure of hysteria, guilt or despair.

Second, I want you to face the process of dying and death in the twenty-first century informed by the Jewish tradition. In helping you make informed end of life choices, enlightened, responsible Jewish-oriented decisions, and deal with your angst and ambivalence and that of your loved ones, this book presents a wide spectrum of viewpoints from the various strands of contemporary Judaism, traditional and more modern and flexible (Conservative and Reform). In providing the guidance offered by the Jewish tradition, I draw upon modern Jewish commentators from the last quarter of the twentieth century, who while looking to ancient sources, witnessed the contemporary transformation of death and dying. They’re aware of the realities of the current process of dying and the complexities of life and death in the context of modern, high tech medicine.

Third, in coming decades, recognizing the possibility for responsible rational choices in end of life matters, progressive Jewish institutions and organizations should take the lead in offering nondirective, nonpaternalist counseling for sufferers and their loved ones. Counseling would help the perspective of Spiritual Judaism, this type of counseling would encourage the search for meaning and purpose in life and achieving of closure through a sufferer’s expression of unconditional love and forgiveness the dying process.

The book has both philosophical and procedural answers attended to. It includes both the individual’s and family’s perspective and how to deal with the most minute issues including wills and other documents that need to be laid out. It is well written which makes the reading accessible. It should be on the family book shelf!

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