NAHUM M. WALDMAN
Sickness in Jewish Law
Illness is an ever-present reality at all stages in the human life cycle, from temporary indispositions to chronic conditions to life-threatening illness. Sickness is only one of the factors that can shorten life; war, violence, and accidents are others. While there is no guaranteed number of years, we do have statistics which indicate that a certain life expectancy is usual in contemporary circumstances. We are also the beneficiaries of significant advances in medical science that have increased life expectancy and give us grounds for optimism. Still, diseases remain that afflict young and old and for which no cure is currently known. Under these circumstances, advanced medical technology may add years of active and meaningful life, may maintain the status quo, or may prolong the agony of dying.
Understanding the appropriate response to these complex situations in the light of Jewish law and ethics is the goal of this chapter. Jewish law, halakhah, contains teachings that deal with the sanctity-of-life obligations of the physician, the right to take risks, and the length of treatment. Some of these questions are answered directly, while the answers to others must be deduced and inferred. Although Jewish law relating to the bioethical sphere (and many other areas) is not binding, the moral values embodied in it provide an illuminating guide to our personal conscience and actions.