Conversation with Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah, Portland, Oregon

By JewsOnFirst, March 2, 2006

Earlier this year, after the Supreme Court upheld Oregon's Death with Dignity law, we were impressed with Rabbi Ariel Stone's comments to Science & Theology News . We contacted her and she gave us a copy of her testimony to the Vermont state legislature, which is considering a bill similar to Oregon's.

"If someone chooses to exercise her right under Oregon's aid-in-dying law and she qualifies to use it," she told the legislators, "I have, and will continue to, offer my full support of that decision, and help as I am able in the realization of that choice."

This week Rabbi Stone graciously spent some time talking with us about Jewish values and Oregon's Death with Dignity Law.

As we began our conversation, Rabbi Ariel Stone observed that she doesn't see being a rabbi as a calling. "It's not the priestly model, but the prophetic model that I subscribe to."

She posed the question: "how does the sense of God's will impress itself? Do you ever have the sense that you're fulfilling God's will?" The concept, she said, relates to involvement, rather than practices which are about mindfulness, it's a sense that "God really needs this from me. My function, Jewish tradition teaches, is to seek to be a partner with God in the ongoing process of creation."

Stone continued: "Jewish tradition teaches that alienation is exile from each other, and when we are exiled from each other, the presence of God is exiled from us. When I'm involved in issues like the end of life or gay marriage, I've really felt that this is where God is. This is bringing God closer." Stone said that, during the short period last year when gay marriage was legal in Oregon, she felt privileged to performed many marriages.

We asked her if she was in the vanguard in supporting the Death with Dignity law and she replied that a number of rabbis in the state support it. Three rabbis sit on the advisory board of Compassion & Choices of Oregon. . The organization says its mission

is to provide emotional, social and spiritual support to terminally ill Oregoninans and their families/caregivers so they may experience a meaningful and peaceful end of life. We also make certain Oregonians have someone to turn to when they wish to consider using Oregon's aid-in-dying law.

Compassion & Choices of Oregon is part of the national organization, Compassion & Choices.

Contrary to the concern raised by an opponent of the Vermont law at the same hearing where she testified, Oregon's law has not degraded care for the dying. The law has actually resulted "in better palliative care," Stone said. "The state is among the best in the nation in end-of–life care."

She credits part of the improvement to the fact that, with death an option, "people don't have people tip-toeing around the elephant in the room." However, Stone added, "it’s disturbing that, according to what I learned at the hearing at the Vermont Legislature, the federal government is now making the drugs that are used to assist death more expensive."

In Stone's view, the American experience of death needs improvement. "There's a sense of dehumanization of the dying person," with the doctors and hospital staff tending to their tubes and dials, affecting even family members. Doctors are taught to preserve life at all costs, and family members certainly don’t wish to lose a loved one. This can lead to the inability to hear and credit the dying person’s wishes. "The emphasis on individuality in our culture" is also problematic. "We should be respecting the mystery of death," she said. "It's not a personal insult when someone you love dies."

The law has helped to create a situation where "people are reassured," that the process of dying is less likely to be impeded. Part of her role as a rabbi is to reassure people about using the law. "People are vastly reassured by the authority that I have as a rabbi. I represent authenticity to them even though often they are not interested in learning about the actual Jewish teachings that support assistance in dying," said Stone, adding "but I do have such sources as well."

We asked about the Terry Schiavo case that preoccupied much of political America last summer, as the religious right sought to prevent the husband of the long-comatose woman from ending life-support.

That was not about religion, Stone feels, "but other things that masquerade as religion. It's power politics. People finding a sense of meaning," which is in short supply. "If people had a personal sense of meaning they wouldn't be out doing these things."

The Schiavo case was "nothing about what God wants," she said, but about the comfort level of the people who involved themselves.

At one point in the conversation she observed that "some traditional ideas [about Jewish law] have been twisted. Ancient Jewish tradition teaches that we're supposed to live by our laws, not die by them." She observed that “halakha, Jewish law, is a framework for the process of making legal decisions, not necessarily about the preservation of decisions from earlier times and places to be applied regardless of context today. The term halakha means “going” or “path”. It provides a framework for making ethical sense of existence; the rabbis who developed the system did not intend for it to be a cudgel, but a compassionate guide."

At another point she said, "Judaism doesn't talk about rights. It talks about obligations to God, to self, to community. One of my obligations is to make a dying friend as comfortable as possible. It's helpful to Jews to think in terms of obligations, rather than rights."

Asked about the religious right, Stone responded that it was "dealing with a different religious deck than I play with." Whereas the religious right insists that its version of the word of God is absolute, Stone said "the God of the Torah is not perfect, that’s obvious from the stories in the Torah itself. The relationship between God and the Jewish people in the Torah is full of misunderstandings and traumas. It’s about slowly learning how to live in relationship with another.”

A progressive vision of God is that we, and our understanding of God, are still developing. "As mystics see it, we bring God more fully into the world, or drive God’s presence away, through our actions toward each other”.

Rather than focus on the ominous growth of the religious right, Stone said, she is "trying to reassure my people that God hears their voices too. Progressives need to be reassured. It's a tough thing to just be trying to create our own little ethical bubble in which we can feel safe and explore the meaning of our lives" as the society swings hard to the right.

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