Purim Saga


How fitting that the heartbreaking saga of Terri Schiavo is coming to a head during Purim. Granted, the connection to a holiday known for merrymaking is not obvious. On its face, Purim celebrates the rescue of Persian Jewry from certain destruction in the time of King Ahasuerus. They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.

But the Purim holiday is not so simple; it is full of mystery and hidden meanings. It is a religious holiday whose central text, Megillat Esther, never mentions God. Its heroine is a Jewish woman who has intermarried and is urged to hide her identity. The very name “Esther” is said to derive from the biblical verse, “haster astir panai,” “But I [God] will surely conceal my face.”

The Schiavo case is no less murky (see story, page 21). To start with the most disturbing parallel first, there is Terri Schiavo’s face in the video footage. This young woman who most doctors agree is as close to the living dead as biologically possible displays a strained smile. Doctors say this reflex reaction is a result of a still-functioning brain stem, but there it is — a kind of Purim mask hiding both body and soul.

The political firestorm over the case obscures the Schiavo’s family deeply personal dilemma. Doctors have diagnosed the 39-year-old woman as being in a permanent vegetative state. Her parents, devout Catholics, want to keep her alive. Her husband and guardian, Michael, has said his wife made clear to him on two occasions she would not want to live under such conditions, and he has fought for 15 years to have her feeding tube removed.

After a Florida court ruled that doctors could remove the feeding tube that has kept her alive, congressional leaders and the White House intervened. On Monday, President Bush signed the bill passed by the House and Senate, which transferred jurisdiction in the case to a federal judge for review. U.S. District Judge James D. Whitmore immediately declined to order the feeding tube reinserted.

By the time you read this, other events are likely to have played out, including appeals to higher courts and maybe even Schiavo’s death.

A Republican Party bent on undermining states rights is just another topsy-turvy aspect to this case. Are the interventionists’ motives moral or political? Is this Purim-period legislation a model or a masquerade?

“This isn’t about Terri Schiavo. It’s about abortion,” Neal Boortz, a pro-Bush conservative talk show host, wrote on his Web site. “The anti-abortion movement saw an opportunity to take Terri’s tragedy and turn it into a spectacular pageant in support of life. The Republicans in Washington have essentially taken Terri Schiavo hostage — a hostage designed to please their anti-abortion constituency. Can it be said that the Republicans are torturing the soul of Terri Schiavo, and doing it for votes?”

There is no clear-cut, painless resolution of the Schiavo case, as thousands of families who face similar end-of-life decisions for their loved ones know. Jewish opinion on the matter is open to interpretation and disagreement.

A year ago, writing about Schiavo in these pages, Rabbi Elliot Dorff laid out the guiding Jewish principle on end-of-life issues: “We are, on the one hand, not allowed to hasten the dying process, but on the other, we are not supposed to prolong it either.”

Many Jews, especially among the Orthodox, would argue that Schiavo’s feeding tube is a source of nourishment.

“To remove it from a patient whose only impairment is cognitive is simply murder,” Dr. Daniel Eisenberg of Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia told a reporter.

But other observant Jews, like Dorff himself, would argue that in Schiavo’s case, a feeding tube should be classified as medicine.

“It does not come into the body in the usual way food does and thus lacks all the qualities associated with food, such as taste and varying temperatures and textures,” Dorff wrote. “Furthermore, one of the natural features of the dying process is that the person stops eating, and so by using tubes, we are effectively force-feeding a patient and thus prolonging the dying process.”

As medicine has advanced far beyond what the rabbinic sages could have imagined, the answers to these questions become murkier, and more critical.

For that reason, we must think about their implications for ourselves and our loved ones, and make our desires explicit before it is too late.

According to her husband, this is what Terri Schiavo did, and the doctors, the courts and the president should respect that choice. It would have helped if Schiavo had clearly documented her wishes, but how many of us do, especially when we’re in our 20s? Now what should have been a private, painful decision has been turned into another macabre skirmish in the culture war.

How very much like Purim: A story begins as looming tragedy and ends as farce.

The Schiavo case, sadly, has managed to become both at once.