July 1st, 2013
12:26 PM ET
By Jeffrey Weiss, special to CNN
(CNN) – Nelson Mandela belongs to the ages whether he lives another hour, day or decade.
But in what may well be his final days, he’s focusing attention on a modern and yet very old question: When medical treatment can extend life interminably, what's the right thing to ask of doctors – or of the Almighty?
Few outside Mandela’s inner circle know the South African icon’s exact condition and treatment. Family members said last week that he had stopped speaking but was responding to voices. Officials have said he’s battling a lung infection, but they haven’t released much information beyond that.
What we do know is how Mandela’s countrymen have responded to what could be his last illness. More often than not, that response has included public prayer, vigils and hymns.
The South African network SABC reported one sort of prayer being offered, that of healing.
Elizabeth Lipule, 77, an African National Congress Women's League member, told SABC that the louder she sang the more her prayers would be heard.
"We pray that God gives him many years, we still need him."
But the South African Anglican archbishop, Thabo Makgoba, offered a prayer with a rather different tone.
Makgoba prayed the South Africans who will mourn Mandela's eventual death may be solaced. But he also prayed that the anti-apartheid icon will have "a quiet night, and a peaceful, perfect, end."
Which is a very different prayerful attitude.
The Jewish tradition includes 2,000-year-old teaching stories that speak to what is happening today in South Africa.
The Babylonian Talmud famously describes the death of Judah the Prince, one of the foremost sages of his day. He was gravely ill, but his followers prayed unceasingly for him to continue living. A woman servant – cited elsewhere in the Talmud as having a sharp mind about Jewish legal matters – noted her boss’ suffering and decided to take action.
She climbed to the roof and tossed off a jar. The noise startled the men praying. They paused for a moment and “the soul of Rabbi departed to its eternal rest.”
So was the woman’s action a good or bad thing?
The Talmud is notoriously cryptic. But most commentators say the context is pretty clear that the sages approved of what she did.
Another story from the Babylonian Talmud describes the death of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion. He was one of 10 rabbis slaughtered by the Romans for the crime of studying and teaching Torah. The story says that he was burned to death while wrapped in a Torah scroll. And that the Romans put wool soaked in water near his heart to prolong his pain.
The rabbi's followers called to him to inhale the flames, to speed his death. He refused, saying it was wrong to injure one’s self.
The executioner, apparently unhappy about the suffering, set a weird bargain with the rabbi: If he took away the wool and increased the fire, would the rabbi promise him a place in the “life to come”?
That, Teradion agreed to. “And his soul departed speedily.”
What does any of this have to do with the dying of Mandela?
Only that questions about a good death are old. Many Jewish authorities take these stories to mean it is not necessary to prolong suffering when death is imminent and that it’s wrong to choose anything to accelerate dying.
But what’s the difference between maintaining life and prolonging death?
That’s not a question that any text can easily answer.
Several years ago, my father was in the hospital for a final time. He was 92, a couple of years younger than Mandela is now. He had survived a near-fatal episode six months earlier and another a year before that. (Like Mandela, these were respiratory problems, common for the elderly.)
His mind, however, remained relatively clear. And he chose to continue treatments right until the moment he chose not to do so.
“I’m tired,” he told me. “I’ve had enough.”
And he was gone less than two days later.
During his series of final illnesses, I had many conversations with him, with other members of my family, with doctors, about what to do.
At several junctures over almost two years, we could have “broken the jar,” and he would have died quickly and peacefully. But we knew he wasn’t ready to give up. We weren’t ready, either. And time after time, he defied the odds and returned to a quality of life that satisfied him.
Until he didn’t.
Did we do the right thing? That’s not a question I can answer precisely even now. Which means I can perfectly understand the ambivalence in South Africa.
After my father died, one of my friends sent me a note.
Like me, he had lost his father when his dad was quite elderly. “I realized that everything that needed to be said had been said,” he told me. “I just wanted to go on saying it."
Just so. And if that’s true for one man’s family, how much more true must it be for the man who is the father of his entire nation?
Who knows whether Mandela will respond once more to medical treatment? For sure, there is nothing more that he needs to say, and nothing more that his people need to say to him.
But can anybody fault those who want to go on saying it?
Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning religion writer based in Dallas.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.