Monday, November 10, 2008

Life and Death

On Sunday morning, a local news broadcast teased a story by saying that the courts were addressing a conflict between religion and the medical profession. I assumed that the story was the kind we usually see: religious parents refusing treatment of their children because of religious convictions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions or Christian Scientists refusing medical treatment generally.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the picture of the boy at issue: clearly a Chasidic Jewish boy, wearing a yarmulke and the long, curly front hair designed to emulate peyot (the untrimmed sideburns that Orthodox adult men wear). Judaism allows any and all treatment to save a life; any Jewish law can be broken, except the laws against murder, idolatry and adultery. How could his parents refuse treatment?

It turns out that I had misunderstood the nature of the story: in this case, the family wanted treatment of their child ... and the hospital wanted to discontinue it.

The child in question, Motl Brody, suffered from brain cancer. The hospital has determined that he is brain dead -- he exhibits no brain activity whatsoever, even when life support is temporarily suspended, which normally stimulates some level of activity in the brainstem. The hospital has declared him dead and wants to turn off life support and medication.

The boy's parents are Bobover Chasidic Jews. Their sect defines death as the moment when the heart stops beating, and holds that life must be maintained at all costs until that point. There are other opinions within Orthodox Judaism that would accept brain death as death, but the parents' sect does not accept that view, and their rabbi is of the opinion that this child is still alive. I confess, I find their position a bit puzzling: if death is determined by heartbeat, and heartbeat can be maintained indefinitely by machines, how could anyone ever die? But it's not my place to judge their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, commentary on the story turns on whether the parents are paying for his treatment. If the parents are paying for it, many say, then they should be able to continue it as long as they want and the hospital should not be able to stop it; on the other hand, they say, if the parents aren't paying for it, the hospital should be able to turn it off. That's a very slippery slope: at what point does the hospital get to turn off medical care for nonpayment?

But the case is not about who is paying for the treatment. In fact, the hospital in its court papers say that cost of care is not their chief concern, so it is inappropriate for third parties to turn that into the deciding factor. The hospital's primary concern, according to their court papers, is bed space: if this child is allowed to occupy a bed in their intensive care ward, there may not be a bed available for a person that the hospital considers to be alive. The hospital has 32 intensive care beds: 20 of them occupied and 12 unoccupied.

For more on this story, see:


morningstar said...
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morningstar said...

Sad story (RIP Motl), thought-provoking post. Excellent point about artificially maintaining a heartbeat. How to reconcile orthodoxy with progress? What would be the sect's position on cardiac surgery, in which the heart is usually stopped and then restarted?


I have been told that there is a Jewish tradition of the use of a napkin by the Host. If the host folds his napkin and lays it on the table, the servant cannot clear the table, however, if the Host just crumbles the napkin and leaves his chair it is time for the servant to clear the table. That folded napkin tells the servant "I shall return!"
Is there some source I can find to verify this supposed tradition?

JewFAQ said...

Short answer about the folded napkin: there is no such tradition.

The purported Jewish custom was apparently invented to explain a puzzling verse in the Christian scriptures, John 20:7, that talks about a neatly arranged napkin in Jesus's tomb. An email forward that was popular in mid-2007 tries to explain this folded napkin as a traditional Jewish way of saying, "I'll be back!" Except that there is no such tradition and "napkin" isn't even necessarily an accurate translation of the original Greek word.


Need more proof? If you search Google Groups, you will find not a single reference to this supposedly ancient tradition until April 2006, when someone in a Christian message board says his pastor told him about it. You will find no references whatsoever to napkin-related Jewish customs in any Jewish forum.