Holy hotline: Israeli rabbis set up 24-hour call center for families of terminally ill

The new service will help people make life-and-death decisions according to Jewish law.  

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The Puah Institute is launching a groundbreaking hotline that will answer urgent questions of Jewish law when families have to make life and death decisions in the hospital for their loved ones, Makor Rishon reported on Sunday.

Set to begin operations this week, the hotline will be manned 24 hours a day by a team of 30 rabbis working in shifts. They have been rigorously taught what Judaism has to say on the difficult subject of medical ethics and end-of-life issues.

These are topics that may be touched on in rabbinical training classes, but very few spiritual leaders study them thoroughly as they are not issues they need to know on a daily basis.

The initiative comes at the behest of Rabbi Menachem Burstein, head of Puah, whose organization’s expertise until now has been in the field of fertility, childbirth, and questions on the laws of family purity.

Puah’s mission remains to help increase the number of Jewish births, but Burstein says that he saw the need to add another department that deals with the opposite end of the life spectrum.

The realization came during a consolation visit, when the family talked of how they had asked the doctors not to prolong the life of their seriously ill father. He understood that they hadn’t had a rabbi to turn to at that critical moment to help them make their decision, and Burstein decided that this was unacceptable.

“I contacted three important people,” he said. “Rabbi Yigal Shafran, a professor of medical ethics and a medical and law expert, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halperin of the Schlesinger Institute at Shaarei Zedek, and Prof. Abraham Steinberg, who wrote the Israeli law regarding the dying according to the halachic ruling of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. I told them, ‘Let’s set up a system that will answer this need.’”

The hotline is there to help the general public, other rabbis, and doctors who can now refer their patients to a religious arbiter during a highly stressful period in their lives.

“The heads of the hospitals thanked us for opening this line because people don’t know what decision to make in real time,” Burstein said. “Families are embarrassed when the doctor asks whether to allow a system collapse or do CPR or artificial respiration. The department heads said they’ll now know where to refer people who want to know the halachic opinion on the issue.”

Rabbi Ariel Vider of Jerusalem, who co-chairs the new department with Moshav Nir Galim’s rabbi, Zvi Arnon, said that the hotline is extremely important especially because medical technology is “evolving amazingly all over the world.”

Although a good thing, it also “causes many more dilemmas: How much of an effort should we make or prolong the life of a sick person? Are we doing something good for the patient or God forbid extending his suffering? When do we stop and say ‘no’?” he said.

The ethical side of the question has also gotten more difficult over the years, he said.

“The world is also progressing, not always for the better in the ethical realm,” Vider said. “The issue of euthanasia and a person’s ownership of his body is not just a personal matter anymore, there are countries that have allowed it. This is a slippery slope in our opinion that takes the subject to an extreme. The Torah has what to say on this ethical question.”

The hotline is free of charge and Burstein said that the rabbis will not intervene in the doctor’s work. They will simply supply an answer, backed up with religious reasons, for the decision that the family has to make.