I have been thinking a lot about Marsi Tabak recently. I first met Marsi about fifteen years ago, when she hired me for my first major editing job.
Marsi was already something of a legend in the world of Jewish publishing for taking a manuscript about an abandoned Chinese baby found in a train station by a completely assimilated Jewish professor, that had been rejected by several publishers and fashioning it into "The Bamboo Cradle," one of the all-time best-sellers in the Orthodox world.
Marsi was bright – intimidatingly so – and demanding.. But we hit it off. Though that initial project ended abruptly, Marsi and I remained friendly, and I always felt that she took Pygmalion-like pride in the development of my subsequent career.
I haven't seen Marsi since she suffered a heart attack seven years ago that left her in what has been diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state (PVS). I do, however, run into her husband Yacov at the numerous family simchas of another author whose career she did much to shape.
Invariably, Yacov responds to my inquiries about Marsi with expressions of thanks for the progress that has been made and hope for future progress. Last week, Yacov was moved to write about Marsi 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 Tabaks 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 actitivies – 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 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 he married will again be able to converse freely with him, just as Sarah Scantlin, a Kansas woman who had 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 cite Yacov Tabak not as a club with which to figuratively beat a less devoted husband like Michael Schiavo. No one who has not been in Michael Schiavo's situation is entitled to judge his actions, or to assume that he would act as Yacov Tabak. My only question for Michael Schiavo is: Why insist on retaining the power to kill your wife while morally compromised by your desire to remarry and your position as heir to the remainder of her $1.2 million malpractice judgment? Why not simply divorce her?
But I would fear to live in a society that sets the procedural and evidentiary bar so low for the termination of life as the state of Florida has done in the case of Terry Schiavo. And I'm proud to live in a religious Jewish society in which Yacov Tabak's efforts on behalf of his beloved wife are the societal ideal.
Only a society that still believes in the human soul, in something ineffable that cannot be expressed in terms of EEG's, can produce a Yacov Tabak, or for that matter a Marianne Jennings, professor of Legal and Ethical Studies at Arizona State University, who has lived for more than a decade with a daughter who depends on a feeding tube and who now has a mother in the same state. "Eliminating them," she writes at the Jewish World Review website, "would mean no more diaper changes, no more feeding bags, and no more '1-2-3 lift!' as we struggle to rotate their positions. But if I lost my Claire or my mother, I would spend a lifetime longing to be of service again, to have just one more time to feel the warmth of those neurologically curled fingers."
And a society which 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 certain societally determined "quality of life." Indeed the killing by starvation of a sentient, responsive woman, who requires no more life support than an infant, is already well down the road.
That slippery slippery slope is rapidly traversed. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, there is growing evidence that many elderly and infirm people feel pressured by their families to "consent" to their own killing so as not to constitute a burden on them. By following the recommendation of Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer to jettison "doctrines about the sanctity of life," the Netherlands has, in just a few years, come close to Singer's own ideal of a society in which it is "the refusal to accept killing that, in some cases, [will be seen] as horrific."
May we continue to be guided by the Biblical injunction: Choose life.