Shemini and Schiavo

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

Dear Friends:

As I write this, it’s been a few hours since Terry Schiavo has entered the World
to Come- may her passage be easy and her memory be a blessing for her friends and family.

I’ve said very little about the controversy over her right to die- or right to
life, depending on how you see it- though many rabbis and spiritual leaders have used
the media frenzy as a chance to discuss important issues with their
congregations.  This week, however, not only is the Torah portion directly relevant to these
issues of literally life-and-death, but my own anger and frustration as a religious leader
has reached the point where I want to speak out. Not against Congress or the
judiciary or the doctors or the family, but against my colleagues, the so-called spiritual
leaders and advisors who have done so much to irresponsibly inflame passions on all
sides of this debate.

First, let’s put things in the context of this week’s parsha. The most famous
part of Shemini is the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons, after they offer
“strange fire” in the Mishkan. Moshe tries to console his brother, but Aharon is silent;
thenMoshe tells Aharon and his other sons to continue with the work of the Mishkan,
and not to adopt the rituals of excessive mourning. All of this is in Vayikra/
Leviticus chapter 10, which you can find here, in the middle of the page:

Now, returning to the topic at hand: what I find fascinating in the story of
Nadav and Avihu is not so much the topic of “why did this happen?” (although that’s a
timeless question for further Torah study) but in the reactions of their family. Moshe,
after all, is their uncle, yet he first tries to offer consoling words of explanation, and
then urges his other nephews to continue with the work of the priesthood- in modern
language, we’d say he was telling them to “move on with their lives.”

To me, both of these reactions are natural and common, born of a basic human
desire to lessen the pain of those we love. Yet sometimes when we try to
console, we end up sounding like the loss shouldn’t be so painful, or we try to minimize
the grief, which is often a well intentioned but ineffective gesture. The very idea
of “pastoral care” (not limited to official pastors, of course) is not so much to
find the right words to take away the pain but to be present with the one who is
suffering. In the parsha, Moshe is talking, but Aharon is silent- and sometimes silence is all
we can truthfully manage while going through times of loss and sorrow.

Silence, of course, is the one thing that’s been missing in the United States
these past few weeks, as everybody from newspaper columnists to radio pundits to
television preachers have discussed the Schiavo case in all of its details. The
legal and moral issues are complex, and I make no pretense of special insight, yet one
aspect of recent events bothers me greatly. The Schindlers- Terry Schiavo’s
parents- have often appeared with both Catholic and Protestant religious leadership-
everybody from Randall Terry, the anti-abortion crusader, to Jesse Jackson, if
you can imagine it. Prayer services have been held outside the hospice, and even the
Vatican has issued clarifications of its teachings about the “right to life.”
But where in any of this has been the pastoral care of grieving parents? How is it possible
that intelligent religious leaders have held out hope for a medical miracle against
all the advice of modern neurology, and nowhere is there evidence of that any spiritual
counselor has ever helped this poor family deal with its pain, its grief and

We’ve heard the talking- and the posturing, and the politics, and the preaching-
but where is the silence in the face of tragedy, that silence which is the truest
companionship when life becomes unbearable? I accept that different people have
different views of the Schiavo case- as I said, the issues raised are not
simple- but I cannot accept that religious commitment means only commitment to faith beyond
facts, as opposed to a humane commitment that life can be renewed for the living
after the death of a loved one. Sometimes helping people hold on tight when life
is ending is not mercy, but an abdication of responsibility on the part of the
“spiritual advisors” who are precisely the people who are supposed to have the “big
picture” of life and death, in its ebb and flow, over generations, in the sight of God, with
Whom we are ultimately reconciled.

Like Moshe trying to tell his brother that Nadav and Avihu were glorified in
their deaths, I can well understand how a religious leader wants to offer hope and
comfort in a time of tragedy, yet I cannot help but feel that once again, religion has
debased itself through the grandstanding of its most public “defenders.” Offering the
remote possibility of medical miracles, as opposed to the comfort of faithful presence,
to grieving parents facing bitter truths is to my mind a travesty of spiritual
leadership and pastoral care. Faith in life can be faith in the possibility of life to
renew itself.  Death is precisely when such faith is tested, and it’s the job of all members of
a religious community help each other find that faith when it is most needed. This
is done not by living in a world of impossible hopes, but by offering one’s
presence with a full heart- and that’s the kind of orientation towards life in which all
Americans could find agreement.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS – Here’s a well-balanced discussion of different Jewish views on end-of-life
issues relevant to the Schiavo controversy:

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