The Jewish View of Life Extension

The Jewish View of Life Extension


Dr. Paul Root Wolpe
Dr. Paul Root Wolpe

What is the Jewish view of medical decisions that extend life or bring life to a peaceful end? Is aging a disease to be conquered, or is the aging process a natural phenomenon that scientists should just leave alone?

A discussion on these controversial bioethical topics was held as part of the Rabbinical Assembly National Convention on May 7 with featured speakers Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University, and Rabbi Dr. Elliott Dorff, professor at The American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

This session of the Convention, convened at Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Buckhead, raised more questions than it answered. Though open to the public, the event was largely attended by Conservative rabbis (the Rabbinical Assembly is the international association of Conservative rabbis founded in 1901).

“If we can control the microdynamics of cells, we won’t age,” explained Dr. Wolpe. “Over time, the age span of man has changed. During Neolithic times, human lifespan was 20. In classic Greek times, life usually lasted for 26 years.

Rabbi Dr. Elliott Dorff
Rabbi Dr. Elliott Dorff

“Today, around the world, the average lifespan is 70 years.”
Dr. Wolpe, a professor and the director of the Center of Ethics at Emory, acknowledged that infectious diseases have been conquered, effectively doubling the human lifespan. On the other hand, today we have problems because of overpopulation; Wolpe asked if it is in our best interest to live even longer, even if we can remain healthy.According to Dr. Wolpe, scientists are beginning to push the outer edges of human life; many now say that 120 years is the natural lifespan. But Wolpe also warned that if life is extended, family dynamics will change.

“What we are experiencing now is trans-humanism,” he said. “The next phase of evolution is self-design. With genetic engineering and our ability to change physiology, we are learning to change the inner environment of being human, and this can change human ethics.

“With today’s trans-humanist technology, we are able to change human form and function,” he continued. “We transcend aging and hunger, but technology will create new problems.”

Rabbi Dr. Dorff, who teaches medical and legal ethics at UCLA medical and law schools, focused on the topic as it relates to Jewish traditions, doctrines and practices.

He cited that, according to the Torah, Adam lived to be 930 years old.

“Ancient figures present mythical numbers,” he said.

Acknowledging that life expectancy is changing, Rabbi Dr. Dorff talked about the many negative aspects of aging.

“By the time most people are 90, they are the ruin of the public,” he said. “They have lost their hair and their teeth. They are forgetful, have no ability to taste their food and can no longer amuse themselves. They live with the sadness of having lost so many loved ones.”

Speaking against using medical interventions to extend life, Rabbi Dr. Dorff explained that when humans seek immortality, this weakens our sense of having “deadlines.”

“This affects our value system. Prolonging life binds us to other values,” he said.

The rabbi also spoke briefly about one’s views of life after death. The difference between Jews and Christians, he said, is that Christians don’t fear death because they know they are going to Jesus.

“Jews, however, often want a second opinion and have a more aggressive attitude towards health care,” he said. “For most Jews, when it becomes clear that medicine cannot cure you, the common attitude is to use modern medicine to help you die.”

Jewish tradition, however, teaches that one should not ask for unreasonable help.  Rabbi Dr. Dorff cited a study indicated that Jews in England are quicker than their non-Jewish peers to accept hospice care.

“The real question is, how far should we push?” he asked.

By Arlene Appelrouth
AJT Contributor

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