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Mercy Redefined

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

I was not looking forward to interviewing Dr. Rachamim Melamed-Cohen, Israel's most famous terminally ill patient.

The thought of the five-hour round-trip by bus, train and taxi to Jerusalem from my home in northern Israel was daunting, and I was reluctant in any case to visit with someone suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig's Disease), paralyzed from the neck down and waiting to die.

My mistake. Melamed-Cohen is not waiting to die. On the contrary, he greets his visitors with a cheerful countenance and a list of projects that would fatigue someone in good health and half his sixty-five years. Although confined to a wheelchair, the former National Supervisor of Educational Programming for Israel's Department of Education brims with intelligence, humor and an astounding creative energy. In the past two years, after being connected to life-sustaining equipment, he has authored two books on educational methods and has three more in the works, one of them on the subject of euthanasia. He also lectures, receives a steady stream of visitors and follows the Daf Yomi, a challenging daily regimen of Talmudic study joined by Jews all over the world.

What enables Dr. Melamed-Cohen to overcome the pain and hopelessness that has driven other victims of incurable illness to consider suicide?

Self-definition is a large part of it. As he explains, "I don't define myself as 'ill,' or 'a patient.' Rather, I am a human being who has an illness, and who receives treatment. The term 'ill' connotes someone who lies in bed passively and does nothing. I do many things, though I also have an illness."

"And I am not terminally ill, no more than anyone else who is eventually going to die. It's already 8 years that the doctors have been calling me 'terminally ill,' but with each passing day I feel less and less terminal." Initially, when he was diagnosed with ALS, doctors gave him 3 to 5 years to live, and he continues to disprove their prognosis.

Equally essential to Melamed-Cohen's determination to carry on is his religious faith. "I feel at times that G-d has allowed me to live in order to show the world that even in such a condition one can continue to be creative and contribute to society... The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the last breath of life. Until the last moment, one has to live and rejoice and give thanks to the Creator."

Melamed-Cohen has gained a certain prominence in the Israeli media for his outspoken opposition to the euthanasia movement. "What is mercy-killing?" he asks. "For whom is the mercy? Is it for the person with an illness? Or is it for the family, so that they should not have to suffer? For the medical establishment, to reduce expenditures? For the insurance companies? Mercy means helping others to live, and with dignity. Helping people to cut their lives short cannot be called mercy."

And indeed, as he notes, the cessation of life-sustaining measures, "pulling the plug," is forbidden by Jewish law.

"In the last two years, I have been fighting with senior medical officials and journalists who advocate euthanasia. I am trying to be a mouthpiece for all those people who want to go on living, but are subjected to tremendous pressure by an 'enlightened society.' Instead of devoting our efforts and resources to persuade people to die, it would be better to direct them toward improving the conditions of those for whom a cure has not yet been found."

Melamed-Cohen points out that the ramifications of euthanasia advocacy go far beyond the realm of the "terminally ill." The euthanasia movement threatens to redefine the very meaning, and sanctity, of human life. "Life today is becoming cheaper and cheaper," he observes. "Among young people it finds expression in drugs, violence and suicide. A [healthy] 16-year-old girl came to me and said, 'If it's okay to shorten the life of someone because of their suffering - well, I'm also suffering, and I'd rather die than live.'"

A few weeks ago, another ALS sufferer in Israel decided to end his life. His family assented, and his request to be disconnected from his respirator was approved by the Israeli medical and legal authorities. When interviewed on Israel television, he described his suffering: "Speech is now difficult for me. I can't walk, eat or move. I've lost interest in life. My condition is irreversible, the pain will only increase, why should I drag it out?" Then, in his last moments, he added, "I hope that I am not making a mistake."

Melamed-Cohen, who viewed the live broadcast from his home, commented that "It's clear to me that this man was ambivalent. On the one hand, he wanted a good place in Heaven; on the other hand, he wasn't sure that he was doing the right thing. I heard in his voice a great deal of hesitation and doubt. In my opinion, societal pressure...drove him to the decision that it would be better to die than live. Had he been taken care of at home, in a warm and supportive atmosphere, it could be that he would have felt differently."

Indeed, Melamed-Cohen was not always as resolute as he is today regarding his own case. He relates that two and a half years ago, when he was rushed to the hospital after his breathing stopped, he indicated to his loved ones that they should not take extraordinary measures like connecting him to a respirator to prolong his life.

"It was my good fortune that I was hooked up anyway. Now, two and a half years later, I am happy that they didn't listen to me. I would have missed out on the best, most beautiful years of my life. A person can have a change of heart."


Yisrael Rutman lives in Israel, where he teaches Jewish Studies, edits and writes for various publications.



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