First a word regarding legal Torah method. We summarize the material recorded in the canonical Dual Torah trove, as did the classical medieval rabbis, distilling from this sacred material the legal norms encoded therein. Once in possession of the evidence, we offer a reasonable reading and application of Dual Torah/canonically as opposed to culturally Orthodox Judaism. Some accept the decisions of earlier sages; but these decisions were conditioned by situation, time, and place. Since both the Asheri and Maimonides prefer to confront the classical canon, what Orthodox Jews believe to be the divine will in human voice, we look to the words and values of Judaism’s classical canon in search of a rendering appropriate to our time.
Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15 command Israel to honor/treat with weight/take seriously one’s father and mother.
The idiomatic word used, kabbed, also appears in Proverbs 3:9, where we are to honor God with our hon/substance, or weight/valence/value. See also bBaba Mezia 33a.
pQeddushin 1:7 requires that in old age parents receive children their requisite material support, even if the children must beg alms on the street in order to provide that support. The parents who gave sustaining support at the beginning of their children’s lives have a right to expect reciprocity at the end of their own lives. See also Safra Qedoshim 1.
The reasons given for honoring one’s parents include that one will have long life and because God said so.
Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Exodus/Yitro 8, a legal and therefore normatively binding Midrash, requires that we obey our parents’ orders, i.e., we hear/complete their requests.
pPeah 1:5 associates the reward for obeying God with the reward for honoring/obeying parents, i.e., long or eternal life. See Maimonides, Repentance 8:4 or the classical explanation of this idiom “long life.”
bQeddushin 30b teaches that a woman who is married and without her own material resources is exempt from providing material and substance and honor to her parents. Here the Torah teaches that only requests that are possible to fullfll are obligatory to fulfill. The Torah was given to normal people, not super people. Radically inappropriate requests, like ordering a child to marry a specific person or to take a parent’s side in a dispute, may also be ignored, as we shall see…..
Leviticus 19:3 juxtaposes the holding of one’s parents in awe with Shabbat observance, which for bYevamot 6a indicates that the legal [as opposed to social, rational, or ethical] reason that we respect and provide for our parents is that God’s order creates a divine order. Therefore, parents are not authorized to tell the child to disobey the Torah, so when parental and Torah mandates conflict, Torah trumps.
Children are required to fulfill their parents’ wishes and requests. Last wishes are wishes that are laden with extra anxiety. Torah law nevertheless applies.
This includes material support, as long as that support is possible to provide. The child may be reduced to penury while providing support but is not obliged to give what one does not possess.
The parent may advise but may not command or dictate a child’s marital choice, following patriarchal Biblical precedent.
The parent may not order the child to disregard what the Torah sees as a divine order. Therefore, a parental order to cremate may be disregarded by children. If there is a formal, legal will that may not be disregarded, then those who do not object to the cremation should attend to it; children have consciences, too. Although my view is contested, it seems reasonable to me that cremains should be buried so as to observe Deuteronomy 21:23, which requires burial even of legally executed and condemned sinners, without exception.
The answer to this question depends on what the parents’ last wishes were.
The Torah twice commands us, in Exodus 20:11 and in Deuteronomy 5:16, to honor our parents. The rabbinic tradition (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a) interprets this command to mean that each of us is obligated “not to stand in one’s parents’ place, not to sit in one’s parents’ place, not to contradict one’s parents’ words, and not arbitrate one’s parent’s arguments.” The Talmud’s directive not to contradict one’s parents – not to deviate from one’s parents’ requests – would seem to include something like a will or a last wish.
What is more, the rabbinic tradition equates honoring one’s parents with honoring God (Kiddusihn 30b). Just as we must follow God’s wishes for us, we must follow our parents’ wishes for us.
In most normal circumstances, then, this suggests that a child has an obligation to follow through with his/her parents’ last wishes. However, there are some important exceptions to that value.
What if the parent requests something demeaning or embarrassing of his/her child? Normally, the tradition insists that one must honor one’s parents even if it means one’s own personal honor is diminished (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 240:3). That is to say, one may not violate the injunction to honor one’s parents even if the parent directly or indirectly causes one to humble his or her own honor. However, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a child may ignore a parent’s request if that request is emotionally abusive.
If the parent’s request would result in major financial loss, and the child cannot afford it, one can deviate from the will (Arba’ah Turim, Yoreh De’ah 240; Mapah, Yoreh De’ah 240:7).
Finally, if the parent’s request would require one to violate other commandments, or other areas of Jewish law, the child is duty-bound to disobey the parent’s wish (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 5b-6a).
Our parents gave us the incomparable gift of life and, for better or worse, consciously or subconsciously, they have taught us everything we know. Put more eloquently by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “To you, your father should be as a god;/One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one/To whom you are but as a form in wax/By him imprinted...” We all owe an immeasurable debt to our parents, and one path to repaying that debt - or expressing gratitude for the generosity - is obeying their wishes.
And yet, while children must honor their parents, the Jewish tradition insists parents must do what is honorable for their children. So there are important limits to honoring parents of which both children and parents ought to be conscious.
My learned colleagues have ably laid out the Halachic perspective in this matter.
The Reform movement has stated in past that it is not bound by Halachah, but Halachah and tradition are factors that are to be considered and followed where possible. Contrary to many assertions by those outside the Reform movement (and some within it as well), Reform Judaism does not stand for the position that 'anything goes.'
From a Reform perspective, it would seem to me that Jewish tradition and Halachah serve here as a guideline that is to be followed, but there is also a need for a balancing of interests and consequences. More specifically, based on the Mitzvah to honor your father and mother, it seems clear that a (reasonable) request by your parent is to be followed, as best as possible, and a final request (in contemplation of death) all the more so, due to the additional weight it carries.
For example, if a parent requests that a child not place them in a specific assisted living facility when there are several similar choices, that is certainly worthy of being considered and followed. Similarly, if a parent requests that a child not undertake 'heroic' measures to keep them alive at the end of life, that too seems worthy of consideration and should be followed.
At the same time, there would seem to be limitations on what a parent may appropriately request of their child, and those limits apply to final requests as well. For example, if a parent requests a child to murder them to end their suffering (along the lines of 'just bring a gun and shoot me!'), that is not appropriate and should not be followed.
The extremes at either end of this continuum seem clear; the difficulties arise most often in the middle, gray areas.
For example, in the medical arena, at the end of life if a parent has stated at some point clearly that they do not wish a feeding tube to be inserted if they are hospitalized, that is less clear than it might seem. If the feeding tube is being used for a two week period following stomach surgery, and the prognosis is that the parent will fully recover and return to an independent and active life, to withhold nutrition for that period (and risk killing the parent) by complying with the request makes little sense. On the other hand, if a parent has said that they do not wish to live in a long-term vegetative state, and they are comatose with no hope or expectation of recovery following a traumatic physical injury which has rendered them incapable of an independent or active life, to violate the expressed wishes of the parent and insert a feeding tube seems to be clearly inappropriate.
It is the middle ground where the questions arise. When the situation is murky, the outcome is not known, or the results are unclear, there is much more need to weigh the matter. If the parent who has suffered a massive injury in a car wreck has only a fifty-fifty chance of survival and recovery, and the degree of recovery is questionable, the question becomes much more difficult.
The difficulties come into play in the application of judgement and the assessment of the situation, and the balancing of the interests and consequences.
In this particular question, the issue raised specifically is in regard to final wishes, or last requests.
In this light, there can be no fixed answer, because the determination will depend on specific circumstances. When a parent makes a death-bed request that a child undertake some action on their behalf, the child will need to weigh the request. If a parent asks that the child give the parent's ring to a particular grandchild, or allow the grandchild to attend a particular school, that may be appropriate to follow. If a parent asks that a child disown a grandchild (that child's child), or convert and practice a particular religion or join a sect that the child has rejected, that would seem an inappropriate request.
If a parent asks a child to deal with their remains in a way that is abhorrent to the child or violates the child's moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, it would seem to me that it is not a reasonable request to make, and the child should not be obliged to comply; otherwise, as a way of honoring the parent, the child should do their best to do as requested.