Religious obligation

This is a familiar subject, but you know how it is – there’s always more to say.

About what? About religious law, religious obligation, religious duty, religious requirements, religious teachings, religious commandments.

Motl Brody of Brooklyn was pronounced dead this week after a half-year fight against a brain tumor, and doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington say the seventh-grader’s brain has ceased functioning entirely. But for the past few days, a machine has continued to inflate and deflate his lungs. As of late Friday afternoon, his heart was still beating with the help of a cocktail of intravenous drugs and adrenaline. That heartbeat has prompted Motl’s parents, who are Orthodox Jews, to refuse the hospital’s request to remove all artificial life support. Under some interpretations of Jewish religious law, including the one accepted by the family’s Hasidic sect, death occurs only when the heart and lungs stop functioning. That means Motl “is alive, and his family has a religious obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment to keep him alive,” the family’s attorney wrote in a court filing this week.

In other words, poor Motl Brody is a corpse, and the corpse is kept breathing by a machine, but ‘some interpretations of Jewish religious law’ say that in fact he is alive because of this machine-made breathing.

His brain has died entirely, according to an affidavit filed by one of his doctors. His eyes are fixed and dilated. His body neither moves nor responds to stimulation. His brain stem shows no electrical function, and his brain tissue has begun to decompose…Jeffrey I. Zuckerman, the attorney for Motl’s parents, says they have been “utterly shattered” by the hospital’s actions. He stressed that the family’s demand for continued life support was based on their obligations under religious law, not an unrealistic hope that their boy will recover…”We respect the family’s beliefs, and have tried since the patient’s arrival in June to work closely with them in a spirit of mutual respect,” the hospital said in a written statement.

What’s interesting here (as often before) is the special status of putative ‘obligations under religious law’ and the deference that is automatically given to them even when there is the attempt to disregard them. The hospital is perhaps socially required (so to speak) to say ‘we respect the family’s beliefs’ even though the beliefs are grotesque enough to ‘oblige’ the family to keep a corpse with a decomposing brain breathing on ‘life support.’ What’s interesting is that there is no other kind of law (at least none that I can think of) that would work that way. What other kind of law could a lawyer cite in this situation? ‘His family has a [____] obligation to secure all necessary and appropriate medical treatment’ – what could you put in that space that would work? I can’t think of a damn thing, can you? Only ‘religious’ law and ‘religious’ obligation can get people to ‘respect’ and defer to this kind of perversity. And the parents in question are apparently being downright truculent about it.

Motl’s mother and father, Eluzer and Miriam Brody, haven’t been to the hospital since July. The medical center says its requests to speak directly with them have been rebuffed, and in recent days, hospital employees “have been inundated with harassing and threatening calls” regarding the case.

So Motl suffered without his parents from July to November, yet those same parents think they have a ‘religious obligation’ to keep his corpse artifically breathing while his brain rots away. Baffling.

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