On Monday night I attended the first in a series of classes by Kevah, an interesting educational institution based in Berkeley, CA. Most Jewish education courses are top-down, with the institution deciding the topic of the course and where it will be. They then go in search of students to attend the course.
Kevah, on the other hand, is bottom-up. If you know a group of people who are interested in serious Jewish education, you (on your own or with Kevah’s help), can decide on a topic, and then Kevah will design a course around your needs. You meet in the home of one of your group’s members, or in any other agreed-upon place. In addition, they focus on building community at the same time that they are educating.
The beauty of this system is you get to learn about exactly what you want to learn about, with the folks with whom you want to learn, rather than with random people that happen show up. Our group chose “Jewish Ethics,” which, of course, could cover a wide variety of potential topics. Our instructor, Joshua Ladon, started with the question of how do we determine when a person has died. Is it when their brain stops functioning? When they stop breathing? When their heart stops?
He said he wanted to choose a topic that was interesting, but not one that was so controversial that we might come to blows or ruin our relationship with each other. That seems like a wise way to start, especially since he hasn’t worked with us before, and didn’t know what to expect from us. I’m happy to say we’re a pretty congenial group, and we are used to disagreeing on occasion in a way that maintains our mutual respect and affection. So, I suspect we will be able to tackle more controversial subjects in the future.
We started with a discussion of when we think a person has died. We then discussed a number of related excerpts from the Talmud, as well as the opinions of R’Moshe Fienstein and his son-in-law, R’Moshe David Tendler.
It was a revelation to some in the class that Orthodox Jewish opinion is not settled on this issue. We in the Reform world often get the impression that Orthodox Jewish law is settled on most important matters, so it can be eye-opening to see where there are differences of opinion, especially on a question as fundamental as when a person has died.
In addition to what constitutes death, we also spent some time discussing end of life issues, and whether it is okay to be either passive or active in regard to the end of a person’s life. For instance, one person spoke of a relative who had asked that no measures be taken to revive him, and how hard it was to sit nearby as the heart monitored slowed and then stopped. Even if you know it is their wish, it can be very difficult to passively allow a person you love to die.
Similarly, I spoke about having to make an active decision when my grandmother was dying. The doctor said she would never leave the hospital alive, and that she was in pain. He told me he could give her more morphine, but it might cause her to stop breathing and die. Making that decision was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
This class helped us to discuss important, deep issues, and to examine our own thoughts and experiences about them. I am very much looking forward to discovering what next week’s class will be like.