Reflections on my Mother: Judaism and Radical Life Extension

by Rabbi Rochelle Robins

As a Chaplain, the topics of aging and death are something I deal with on a daily basis. This experience became even more personal for me, when my own mother recently passed away after struggling with cancer.

Our society has somewhat of a dualistic relationship with the elderly. We often see them as burdens, unable to contribute to our world and out of date with the times. Yet when someone we love reaches a certain age, we struggle to accept their fate. Society’s negative response toward the elderly doesn’t mirror our personal relationships with those whom we love, honor, and want to hold onto for as long as possible. There was little burden in being my Mother’s daughter. She was and remains a great source of love and inspiration.

My grief got me thinking about Google, of all things, and its newly restructured parent company, Alphabet. Part of Alphabet’s work is based on the proposition that finding everlasting life, or as close to it as possible, is a worthwhile financial investment. Investors betting on “radical life extension” suggest that medicine should view aging as more like a mysterious disease than a natural process.

Is Radical Life Extension a Compassionate Response to Aging?

So who is an ageist? Those who invest in perceived quackery to discover the fountain of youth and who resist and conquer natural processes? Or are those who don’t invest time, resources, and ingenuity to prolong the possibility of youthfulness and health in our aging population the ones to blame for ageism?

Who is compassionate? Those who create avenues to extend the lives of our loved ones and our own? Or those who help us accept that life brings natural processes and circumstances that aren’t in our control?

The Jewish Stance on the Anti-Aging Movement

Our Torah teaches us to choose life and to preserve it within reasonable means. Personages in the Torah are written to have lived hundreds of years.  Some scholars argue that years were divided into tenths of time, meaning, what was known as 100 years might have been only 10 for us. According to this theory, Noah for example might have died at 95 rather than at 950 years old. Others argue more literal perspectives about the world being pristine in its beginning, therefore making physical health a more accessible possibility. The Torah seems to be telling us to strive for a long and fulfilling life, but accept when our time is up. But is that all Judaism has to say on the matter?

Judaism embraces life and seeks to promote well-being and the prolonging of the human life span. As with much of Jewish discourse, there isn’t one official stance on the topic. The Pew Research Center in its 2013 “Religion and Public Life” report stated that “no religious group in the United States has released an official statement on radical life extension.” In the report, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, bio-ethicist and philosopher, said “Jewish theologians might ‘offer their views’ on the topic, but they would be regarded as the scholars’ personal opinions.”

As life extending technology becomes more a part of our everyday lives, Judaism could benefit from a more established approach to the questions that are raised.

What About the Soul?

There are strands of Jewish tradition that believe in the immortality of the soul: Cultivating connection to others and God, deepening one’s character, following the mitzvot, and finding meaning and happiness in the immaterial and mysterious nature of existence leads to spiritual, though not necessarily, physical immortality.

Maimonides, influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, differentiated between two kinds of intelligence; one that is based on physical matter and the bodily human experience, and the other more universal intelligence that is based on the soul’s quest to acquire the true, wholesome, and uncorrupted intelligence of the Divine. One must of course be given the gift of physical life in order to distinguish between the two. Yet even from the most rationalist perspective, and Maimonides was indeed a rationalist, there exists a natural tension between living with the tangible and intangible aspects of life.

Could it be that Alphabet’s developing technologies and research might one day suggest that there is more to radical life extension than preserving the body? Perhaps the Maimonidean differentiation between physical and transcendent intelligence will eventually be verified through science and nanotechnology, and that the study and quest for immortality reaches far beyond physical matter. There can be a fine line between science and science fiction in the discussion about anti-Aging.

A Radical Expansion of Access is Essential 

Centuries and even decades ago, living until 80, 90, or 100 would have been unfathomable. We have already achieved tremendous (even radical) abilities to extend life beyond what may have seemed natural or possible ages ago.

But no matter what research and science discover, we are responsible to challenge structures and to expand access to resources – proper nutrition, healthcare, vaccines, and housing. We are responsible for working to make an unsustainable population and planet sustainable again.

Perhaps we should be talking more about Radical Expansion of Access as we approach the possibility of Radical Life Expansion. We are compelled and responsible not to allow a quest for immortality and the preservation of our own interests distract us from Radical Expansion of Access to resources, rights, and privileges. The questions we ask in our Unetanneh tokef High Holiday liturgy, about who shall live and who shall die in the upcoming year, aren’t merely about a Divine decree. The answers rely on the social justice and conscience necessary to provide proper public health resources and medical care access around the world.

Go for it Google! Choose Life!

It is my hope that Google will interact with and invest in the ethical issues of our time as its scientists seek the possibility of prolonged life.

Perhaps Google’s Alphabet does want to extend the quality and length of life for all of us. Challenging conventional medical research and opening up doorways to longer-term health may not lead to immortality, but may preserve life to the fullest capacity. This venture, if done sensitively and ethically regarding all of the issues of our time, has the power and potential to uphold Judaism’s most sacred value: the healthy preservation of the gift of life.

I can’t help but think that if conventional medicine treated Aging as a disease that required and deserved funds, research, and ingenuity, my mother might have retained her health and independence for a longer duration. Would she be one of the lucky ones with access to this technology?

Of course my mother herself, full of vitality, would have chosen to live her life longer as the vibrant, healthy, and independent person everyone had known her to be. She would have undoubtedly consumed the techno-medical fountain of youth had it been available and offered to her.

Most importantly, she would have had the opportunity to share her wisdom, insight, and love with me and the world for a while longer.

Google’s Alphabet, what took you so long?

Rabbi Rochelle Robins is Dean of AJRCA’s Chaplaincy program. AJRCA is the only Jewish seminary with a designated Chaplaincy School that offers a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies with a Certificate in Jewish Chaplaincy. We continue to pioneer new roles for chaplains and spiritual leaders within our ever-changing communities. Read more about the program and hear more from Rabbi Robins here.




One thought on “Reflections on my Mother: Judaism and Radical Life Extension

  1. My heartfelt condolences for your loss. Thank you for this beautiful and eloquent reflection about compassionately nurturing the gift of abundant life as long as possible, extending flourishing as well as expanding access. Thank you for sharing this much needed compassionate wisdom.

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