Occasionally a particular event serves to capture in a nutshell the vast difference between the world which we inhabit as believing Jews and that of the larger society in which we live. The Terri Schiavo case, now winding down towards its tragic denouement, is one such case.
Despite the efforts of President Bush, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and the U.S. Congress, it now seems certain that Terri Schiavo will die sometime this week of dehydration, after a Florida district court judge ordered the removal of the feeding tube that has sustained her for fifteen years. According to liberal columnist Nat Hentoff, that death will be a hideously painful one for a sentient human being like Terri Schiavo, with each of her internal organs eventually bloating and then splitting from a lack of water.
Inflicting such suffering on a helpless animal would surely be illegal in every state. The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto reported recently of a Vermont farmer convicted of starving five of his cows to death.
Yet Terri Schiavo, who committed no crime other than to prove an inconvenience to her husband, will die of starvation by court order. Worse, millions of Americans appear to be clamoring for that result, and are outraged at the efforts of others to prevent it. The Schiavo case is for those who wish to see her dead and buried is, in the words of New York Times cultural critic Frank Rich, but another attempt by "an emboldened religious minority to remake America according to its dogma. . . "
The Florida court that ordered the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube over the furious objection of her parents relied exclusively on the testimony of her husband and his family that she would not have wished to live in her current state. It would be hard to imagine a more compromised witness than Michael Schiavo. He has prevented his wife from receiving all therapy since 1991, despite testimony that she could be taught to swallow on her own, and has not allowed any medical examinations to assess her condition since 1993.
He has publicly stated his intention to remarry immediately upon her death. And he will inherit the remaining part of a million dollar medical malpractice suit that he brought on his wife's behalf. (Only after winning a $1.2 million dollar medical malpractice judgment, predicated on the cost of lifetime care, did Michael Schiavo first bring proceedings in Florida court to have his wife effectively killed through starvation.)
Remarkably, many who oppose the imposition of the death penalty have nevertheless found no problem with the ridiculously low procedural and empirical bar set by the Florida district court before depriving Terri Schiavo of her life. In their view, due process demands endless direct and collateral appeals for convicted axe murderers and serial killers. But nothing remotely approaching proof beyond all reasonable doubt is required concerning what Terri Schiavo would have wanted if offered the choice between her current state, in which she is responsive to those around her and living without being sustained artificially by machines and a slow and painful death.
EVER SINCE I BECAME ABSORBED BY TERRI SCHIAVO'S FATE, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my friend Marsi Tabak, who also suffered prolonged oxygen deprivation after a heart attack about seven years ago.
The Marsi I knew was bright – intimidatingly so. As chief editor of Feldheim Publications, she was a legendary figure in Jewish publishing for having taken the manuscript of The Bamboo Cradle, which had already been rejected by other publishers, and fashioning it into one of the all-time bestsellers in Orthodox publishing.
She offered me my first major editing job, and even though that project did not end happily, we remained in contact for years after. I always had the feeling that she took some Pygmalion-like pride in the subsequent development of my career.
Though I have not seen Marsi since her heart attack, I run into her husband Yacov at the numerous family simchas of another author whose career she did so much to shape. Invariably, Yacov responds to my inquiries about Marsi with expressions of thanks to Hashem for the progress that has been made and hope for future progress.
Last week, Yacov wrote an extremely powerful letter to the Jerusalem Post, in response to a series of articles about Terri Schiavo and the Jewish approach to such situations. Subsequently, CNN picked up the story and interviewed the Tabak's for three hours and aired a three-minute segment on them.
Over the last seven years, Marsi has learned again to swallow and to stand with the assistance of a walker. Each of these achievements – i.e., the performance of the most routine, everyday activity -- has been hard won, the result of months and even years of effort by each family member and various physiotherapists. As a result of Marsi's and her family's efforts, she accompanied her daughter to the chuppah, and on Purim her son read the Megilla to her, as he does every year. Yacov describes communication as "very challenging, but possible, and very rewarding."
Yacov hopes that the brilliant woman with whom he built his life will again be able to converse freely with him, just as Sarah Scantlin, a Kansas woman who has been in PVS for twenty years, began to speak well this past February. Whether or not that happens, however, he will have no regrets about devoting himself to her improvement. "To witness my wife struggling today with her challenging physiotherapy while standing in a walker is to understand what the will to live really means," he writes.
I do not wish to use Yacov Tabak as a whip to flagellate Michael Schiavo. None of us would envy the latter's situation, and none of us can be sure that we would act with the mesirus nefesh of Yacov Tabak. Yet it is clear that only a certain type of society can produce a Yacov Tabak, and that another type of society will produce mostly Michael Schiavo's.
Only a society that still believes in the human soul as something ineffable – a breath of the Divine within us – which cannot be expressed in terms of EEG's can produce a Yacov Tabak. By contrast, a society that defines life only in terms of the capacity to experience a certain set of pleasures is on the road towards elimination of those who lack a particular societally determined "quality of life." Indeed the judicially sanctioned killing by starvation of a sentient, responsive woman, who requires no more life support than an infant, is already well down the road.
NOT ONLY DOES THE DIFFERENT TREATMENT of Terri Schiavo and Marsi Tabak by their respective husbands highlight the difference between a Torah perspective and the religion of secularism, so do the different reactions of Orthodox Jews and heterodox clergymen accentuate the chasm between Torah Judaism and what Rabbi Moshe Sherer used to refer to as cosmetic Judaism.
The Baltimore Jewish Times polled a cross-section of local Jewish spiritual leaders last week for their perspectives on the Schiavo case. The results were fascinating and saddening. For those cut off from halachah, the classical sources become nothing more than a collection of possibly relevant statements from which the individual congregants can fashion the narrative that best suits him or her. Elizabeth Bolton, spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Tikvah, for instance, takes "great comfort in the range of perspectives offered by various midrashim and tales of our martyrs." She views her role primarily as supporting the ethical decisions of families, presumably by supplying the relevant quotations to buttress their decision.
Many of the other heterodox spiritual leaders directed their main wrath at the clumsy efforts of the U.S. Congress to save Terri Schiavo's life rather than at those trying to murder her. Bradd Boxman described it as atrocious "that big government has stepped in the way it has," adding his personal vote for death if that's what she wanted. Though it did not seem to be that relevant to his personal views, Boxman claimed that there are sources in Judaism to support his view, some of them "even in the realm of Halachah."
Mitchell Wohlberg acknowledged that Terri Schiavo is effectively being taken out to a desert and left to die without food or water. But the real "shame" in his view was that the U.S. Congress "should pass resolutions for one person." "Exceptional cases don't justify breaking the rules," he opined, even in cases of murder. And Mark Loeb saw no problem with letting Michael Schiavo make the decision concerning his "wife's 'best interest'." His primary worry was that one theological view – whether it be that of the Christian Right, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Torah – should trump all others. His clerical role seems limited to protecting secularism in the name of pluralism.
Columnist Charles Krauthamer came much closer to expressing a Jewish viewpoint than the so-called Jewish clergymen. Given the choice "between a legal travesty on the one hand and human tragedy on the other," he, unlike the heterodox spiritual leaders, preferred the Biblical injunction: Choose life.