According to Judaism, life is extremely precious and holy, and thus one cannot treat matters of life and death lightly. G‑d states clearly in the Torah: "Therefore choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19). While we have the power to make a choice, G‑d enjoins us to choose life over death.
For that reason, Judaism forbids acts that result in "mercy killing" or that grant the "right to end life." Until the moment of natural death, every second that the soul is in the body is inestimably valuable — not just to the body, but to to the Jewish people and the world as a whole.
The mere fact that the soul and body are still together is reason enough to sustain this union by all means possible, regardless of the presumed "quality-of-life" (if one can ever truly estimate someone's quality of life) of the person. For life is of infinite, not relative, value, and mathematically any fraction of infinity must also be infinite.
Additionally, the Talmud states that a person can acquire his entire portion in the World to Come in a single instant by thoughts of repentance. No one may deny a person that chance.
In the Hands of G‑d
We find an expression in Jewish writings that even if a "sword is hanging over a person's neck," and death seems certain, one still must not despair. For just as one knows that G‑d created the world and sustains life upon it, one must also know that G‑d can intervene and spare what seems to be a certain fate.
To put it another way, if G‑d did not wish us to be alive right now, we would immediately cease living. This fact alone demonstrates that He wants us to live. If we (or our loved ones) cannot see a reason to remain alive, it does not mean that G‑d does not. G‑d is truly in control and we should draw great strength, courage, and comfort from this.
At a Crossroads
When decisions have to be made concerning one's own care or that of a loved one, everyone involved is usually motivated by concern for the patient and the desire to do the right thing.
Often, this is easier said than done. Who can say what is truly "the right thing?" Who are we to make what may turn out to be an irreversible decision? As Jews, we are fortunate to have the Torah. It serves as the guiding light for all matters of life.
As mentioned earlier, the Torah stresses the obligation upon everyone to extend life. In addition to many other reasons, during these extra moments, the soul may yet do Teshuva, true repentance, and reach its fulfillment — an opportunity that is lost once the soul leaves this world.
When making decisions that affect the life of a person, one should be sensitive to the needs of the soul, in addition to that of the body. It is imperative to consult with a rabbi who specializes in this area of Jewish law. This will ensure that whatever is done is guided by Torah, and one will be at peace knowing that he has done what is right according to G‑d and what is right for his loved one.
Life is Always Worth Living
As mentioned above, every moment that a soul is in the body is extremely valuable. We may not understand what this means in our terms, but one thing is certain: "quality" has to be measured by more than what we see or understand. And for this we have to turn to the Torah and to rabbinic guidance.
The Torah teaches that souls come to earth for many purposes. It could be that the destiny of a soul is to elicit certain responses on our part, to teach us about the meaning of life and love, or to help us relate to the person's essence, not his physical aspect. If we succeed in learning the lesson, then the soul has accomplished its mission and is rewarded for it. If we fail to respond with sensitivity and respect for the unconditional value of that person's life, we not only deny the soul its spiritual fulfillment and reward, we deny a small part of our fulfillment as well.
I Am the Guardian of My Life
When G‑d endows a person with life, the person becomes a guardian who must look after his "gift of life." According to Judaism, we do not "own" our soul or body, nor are we free to end life when we want. Life and death have always been, and remain, the realm of G‑d and the Heavenly Court.
Therefore, if one takes his life, G‑d forbid, he is liable for murder, even if only of himself. This action is so severe that the Torah forbids one who defiantly committed suicide from being buried in a Jewish cemetery or to be mourned by his family.
Dealing with Pain and Suffering
The Torah is both compassionate and understanding. It recognizes that there are times when an ill person is suffering greatly. In such cases, Torah law distinguishes between action and inaction. According to Torah law, everyone involved in the care of the patient must do all in their power to preserve and prolong life. In the case of the terminally ill, for whom no cure is known or possible, and who are in extremely severe pain and discomfort, the Torah permits one to allow nature to "take its course." But one may never withhold or decline food, water, or oxygen. This would be tantamount to murder or suicide.
In any given situation, it is imperative to consult with a rabbi who specializes in this area of Jewish law, before making any decision for yourself or the person in your care.
Drafting a Living Will
In today's day and age, it is a wise idea to clearly inform relatives and doctors of your desires that Jewish law guide your medical care should you become incapacitated, G‑d forbid.
In addition to gaining peace of mind, having a legal document in hand will spare your loved ones and your medical team unnecessary stress and uncertainty should your desires ever come into question. Sometimes known as a "Health Care Proxy" or an "Advanced Directive," most jurisdictions will recognize a clearly written and signed "Living Will."
It is recommended that you consult with a competent rabbi, and a local estate and trust attorney, when drafting the document, to ensure its halachic and legal validity.
Click here for a sample "Living Will"