Unlebenswertiges Leben: 'Life Unworthy of Life'

The title is a literally untranslatable bit of National Socialist jargon which is usually clumsily rendered into English as: “life unworthy of life.”

It was used in the discussion of what are today called “quality of life” issues regarding people born with physical and mental defects, suffering from incurable ailments, and seemingly at the end of their “useful” lives. Another quaint term for such people, likewise untranslatable in its sheer cruelty, was nutzlose Fresser, “useless eaters” (to convey a little more of the original’s flavor: fressen is what animals do, essen is what humans do).


The doctrine embodied in these terms was hardly original with the Nazis (a shorthand expression, too widely used, which conceals the actual nature and origins of the movement called the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”). Its origins lay in the eugenics movement, which was a feature of late 19th and early 20th century Western “civilization.” This was one of the more sinister developments of Darwinistic evolutionary theory.

The most famous practitioner of eugenics on these shores was perhaps Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, whose Birth Control Review frequently cast the National Socialists in a positive light. It published such articles as “Eugenic Sterilization: An Urgent Need” by Ernst Rüdin, Hitler’s director of sterilization and a founder of the German Society for Racial Hygiene.

Sadly, this doctrine whose birth preceded and informed so much of the Hitlerian horror did not perish with National Socialism, either. An example is former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, who famously asserted that ill elderly people “have a duty to die and get out of the way”. More recently, Ezekiel Emanuel — brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and major proponent of ObamaCare and other rationing schemes — has declared 75 to be the optimal age for one to die. Dr. Emanuel, who was born in 1957, claims that he will not be in line at the euthanasia clinic on his 75th birthday, but he alleges that he will eschew anything but palliative care at that point. That may be his right, but he also seems to wish to eschew it on behalf of all the rest of us as well.


Then there is Princeton “bio-ethicist” Dr. Peter Singer, who has written an essay called “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong.”

The eugenicists are alive and well, living among us and influencing public policy.

It should be needless to say that all of this is a frontal assault on traditional, biblical morality. The concept of a life without quality, “unworthy of life,” is an obscenity; all life is precious, indeed sacred. The reason for this is a deeply religious concept central to understanding the Bible and biblical morality. 

Mankind was created, and placed originally in the Garden of Eden, lë-‘ovdah ulë-shomrah, conventionally translated “to work it and to preserve it” (Genesis II,15). The root meaning of that first word, though, is “service” (other words are translatable as “work”).

How, then, do we “serve” in the Garden (or, indeed, anywhere else on Earth)? The written Torah is replete with mitzvoth, “commandments,” traditionally assessed at 613 in number, detailing how the physical world is to be approached, manipulated, and used to infuse sanctity to complete and fulfill G-d’s Creation. For this, we were placed here.     

Accepting that we have been granted existence to fulfill a purpose in the world, there are many of these commandments which can be carried out continuously. As an example, take the obligation to wear tzitzith, “fringes,” elaborately tied to the corners of a square garment (cf. Numbers XXXIV,37-41 and Deuteronomy XXII,12). For the moment, put aside the question of why we have this commandment — the point is that every precious second of conscious, breathing life while wearing the garment fulfills it, and accrues to the benefit and ultimate reward of the man wearing it.


It follows, from this and many other examples, that someone who lives with this view of life can never see it as unwertig, “valueless.”

Every second of life is precious, is to be lived and experienced to the full, with the purpose of serving the Creator, attesting to His existence, and glorifying His name within the realm which He created, serene in the knowledge that He created us as we are, to meet and overcome the challenges we are set, as provided in His Torah.

Many of the social ills which plague contemporary society can be traced to a life without purpose or direction.

In this lie the roots of the unbridled hedonism, the search to anaesthetize the existential pain of aimless existence in drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, and pointless violence and destruction. The only solution to such pathologies rests not in terminating human life, which the Nazis proved has serious, soul-destroying consequences for the practitioners as much as for the victims.

It rests in the establishment of moral purpose in the biblical sense, even if not precisely the Jewish sense which has been outlined above.


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