BBC Radio 4:Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer - 14/07/17


You are listening to a programmes from BBC Radio 4.

This week we have witnessed the heart-breaking scenes of Chris Gard and Connie Yates fighting for the life of their terminally ill eleven month old child Charlie.

It’s tempting to depict their court case against Great Ormond Street Hospital, who want to switch off Charlie’s life support, as a pitched battle between parental love and heartless corporate bureaucracy.

But this would be superficial and sensationalist reading of the situation. It presents the dilemma in stark binary terms. And the reality is more complex, in which there are two irreconcilable definitions of good. Or to be more precise, I believe, two definitions of love.

Charlie’s parents exhibit existential love. This is a boundless, unconditional love, whose sole object is the existence of their child. What does it matter how slim are the chances of Charlie’s survival? Statistics have no place in parental love.

Great Ormond Street Hospital is exhibiting a different kind of love, one that might be termed compassionate love. Thiers is rooted in protecting this vulnerable little boy in their care from unnecessary, and in their view, pointless suffering. They bear seriously their responsibility to protect him from painful invasive experiences, which, they argue, are incapable of curing him anyway.

Jewish sCRIpture imagines God as possessing both types of love for humanity.

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah depicts God as a loving parent and asks rhetorically:

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Even if this were possible, I will not forget you.

And in the book of Exodus God reassures his people as a physician saying:

I am the Lord your healer. (Exodus, 15:26)

But what happens when these two roles; parent and healer clash?

The Talmud tells the story of the terminally ill Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was kept alive, albeit in agony, by his students’ fervent prayers. When his devoted housekeeper intuited what was responsible for prolonging her master’s suffering, she prayed for the rabbi’s demise.

The students appealed to God as parent, while the housekeeper appealed to God as physician. They couldn’t bear to see him die. She couldn’t bear to see him suffer. In the end, her prayers prevail, but that is not a judgement on the sincere love displayed by his students.

The Charlie Gard situation is an awful tragedy. No one should expect the heartbroken parents to accommodate a position that would deprive their child of life. And at the same time we must not expect the hospital to relinquish its responsibility to alleviate unnecessary suffering.

The courts have an unenviable role to play. As for us, all we can do is appreciate, that in a world filled with so much hatred, what underlies this agonising dilemma, is excruciating love.

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