What Makes Us Human?

Jul 19, 2011 | 0 comments

What does it mean to be a human being, as opposed to simply being alive? What does it mean to be dead? When do we stop being human?

Albuquerque’s Congregation Albert members wrestled with these questions in a recent text study session with Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld, the synagogue’s new rabbi.

Rosenfeld has counseled congregants throughout his 30-year rabbinical career regarding life and death medical procedures. He said there are two levels to consider – what the doctors tell us to do procedurally and what Jewish tradition tells us about human values. The challenge is to incorporate those values within the medical decision-making process.

The article, “Religion and the Robot,” written in 1966 by Azriel Rosenfeld (no relation to Rabbi Rosenfeld) in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, suggested three criteria for the religious definition of a human: human parentage, human form, and intelligence. Yet, Rosenfeld raises other questions:

  • How much of a person’s body can be replaced by artificial limbs and organs before he is no longer a “man”?
  • Is he a “man” as long as his brain remains intact?
  • What if his brain too is “replaced” by a complete recoding of its contents in the “memory banks” of an “intelligent” computer? (theoretical in 1966, getting closer to reality in 2011)
  • If dolphins are as intelligent as humans, does this make a dolphin a “man”?

The mythical golem in Jewish tradition was an animated creature of clay or wood created to be a servant or protector. It was known for strength but not brains. The Rabbi said that the golem is like a fetus, in that it doesn’t have the breath of life. It is a being, but not quite a human being.

Being human, we have to be able to communicate. We have breath cycling in and out of our lungs and blood flowing in our veins. And men and women are made in the image of God.

So, in the dying process, is there a point at which we stop being human and become a golem? If someone is in a persistent vegetative state, do we keep him alive with machines and tubes just because we can?

Jewish ethical guidelines for medical intervention suggest this: If a human being needs help doing something to continue living, provide it. Is the issue breathing or a feeding tube, medication or circulation? When it’s a case of the human body naturally dying, let it happen. We are charged to treasure life, but also to avoid prolonging death. The ultimate decision comes down to love.

Family members have to make decisions for an ailing loved one based on love. If Grandma says she wants to be allowed to die, family members should support her decision. Those who want to keep her alive despite her wishes may be more concerned about their own emotional distress in this situation.

Families often don’t have conversations about healthcare advance directives, and frequently when it is discussed, there’s disagreement. Have a conversation before there’s a health crisis and a family member becomes an uncommunicative golem.

At the end of the session, a group of congregants did a reading from the play R.U.R. by Karel Capek. R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, androids that can be mistaken for humans and think for themselves. This Czech science fiction play debuted in 1921 and introduced the word “robot” to the English language and science fiction as a whole. After finishing the manuscript, Capek realized he had created a modern version of the Jewish golem legend.

R.U.R. ends with this lovely passage:

“Life begins anew, it begins naked and small and comes from love; it takes root in the desert and all that we have done and built, all our cities and factories, all our great art, all our thoughts and all our philosophies, all this will not pass away. It’s only we that have passed away. Our buildings and machines will fall to ruin, the systems and the names of the great will fall like leaves, but you, love, you flourish in the ruins, sow the seeds of life in the wind. Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes… for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation… seen salvation through love – and life.”

So what makes us, and keeps us, human? Love is the answer.

A Good Goodbye