Thought of the Week: 11 February 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 11 February 2016

While vehemently denying allegations that “I’m over the top” or “past it,” I’m well aware that I’m far closer to the day of my death than to the day of my birth. Still, at some remove (I hope) from my death, I feel at one with Woody Allen who quipped: “I’m not afraid of dying – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

As a rabbi, one is never far from death, from what it does and means to that individual and to those around them. It is one of the great privileges of the rabbinate to be with those who are face-to-face with their impending end. Sadly now, it is by no means unusual to stand at the graveside of friends and colleagues, my contemporaries, indeed often younger than I am.

I have been reading three books that profoundly challenged and affected my thinking about these things.

“Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End” is by Atul Gawande, an American surgeon, writer and public health researcher. He gave the Reith Lectures last year and talked about end of life choices, assisted living and the effect of medical procedures on terminally ill people. Reading “Being Mortal” gives real food for thought about how we end our lives, the role of the medical profession in that and so on. Some of the chapter headings give a flavour of the book: “the Independent Self,” “Things Fall Apart,” “Dependence,” “Letting Go,” “Hard Conversations.”

The second book is “Gratitude” by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist by profession, known to many for his “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”. “Gratitude” is just 45 pages, consisting of four short pieces he wrote for the ‘New York Times,’ all but one written in the 6 months between learning of his impending death and dying, in August 2015, aged 82. His preface reads: “I am now faced with dying, but I am not finished with living.” Here are exquisitely-written, deeply-moving reflections on his life and death. Sacks came from an Orthodox Cricklewood family but felt there was no place for him in this country because of his homosexuality and went to live in the States. He completed his autobiography (“On the Move”) just days before learning that he had terminal cancer. The last essay, “Sabbath,” describes his Jewish journey. A year before he died he went, with his partner, to an aunt’s 100th birthday in Jerusalem and experienced again the peace of the Sabbath he knew in his childhood – and sees it as a metaphor for the end of his life: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” I cried when I read that last sentence and closed the book. By some synchronicity, the endpaper of the book has an extract from an obituary for him, written by, unsurprisingly, Atul Gawande.

The third book is “Assisted Dying: Rabbinic Responses,” edited by Rabbi Jonathan Romain. It contains 17 pieces by Reform and Liberal rabbis (including our Rabbi Mark Goldsmith) around the issue. It has, obviously, become ‘live’ in recent years because people are living longer; because there is a greater sense (for better or worse) that each of us has personal autonomy, including how we choose to end our days; and because the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich has become well-known. The essays in the book reflect that there is no right or wrong here, but inform and challenge our ideas and our thinking as do the other two books.

“Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande – Penguin Books 2015.

“Gratitude” by Oliver Sacks – Picador 2015.

“Assisted Dying: Rabbinic Responses” ed. Jonathan Romain (Movement for Reform  Judaism 2014)