The scene in and around courtroom 6-1 at 361 University Ave. in Toronto on Feb. 13 was unusual, by any measure.
As lawyers presented arguments that may determine the fate of 25-year-old Shalom Nethanel Ouanounou, who has been on life support at Humber River Hospital since suffering a violent asthmatic attack in September, dozens of Orthodox Jews came and went. They filled the capacious courtroom to capacity, with some being seated in the jury box.
Inside, women read prayers silently, while outside, a man wearing tefillin and a tallis, prayed as bemused police officers looked on.
They were there to show their support for Ouanounou, whose fate will be decided by the court. Lawyers for the hospital argue that he is brain dead and they wish to remove him from life support. A death certificate has already been issued.
In November, the Ouanounou family received an interim injunction that prevents the hospital from removing him from life support. At the time, Max Ouanounou, Shalom Ouanounou’s father, issued a statement saying: “Withdrawing life support and potentially killing the patient is against Jewish law, and Shalom’s express religious beliefs.
“Shalom seeks an accommodation as a matter of human rights and constitutional law that allows his Jewish beliefs to be considered and accommodated in determining when death occurs.”
In two days of court hearings on Feb. 12 and 13, lawyers for his family, supported by three intervenors from the Jewish community, argued that his heart and lungs are still functioning and that his condition does not meet the Jewish definition of death. They contend that his religious rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be respected and his life should be maintained.
Judge Glenn Hainey of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, who issued the temporary injunction in November, heard the case and is expected to render a decision in the next 30 to 90 days.
Max Ouanounou said the law in Ontario is unclear as to the definition of death and that the neurological definition is not the only relevant one. Shalom Ouanounou’s heart, lungs and kidneys are functioning and, recently, “There has been some finger movement,” his father said.
That has given the family some hope, but ultimately, “I’d like to see him get up,” said Max Ouanounou.
In the meantime, the family would like the hospital to adopt the standards that exists in the state of New Jersey, where hospitals have agreed to accommodate the religious beliefs of Orthodox Jews by keeping patients on life support as long as the heart and lungs are functioning.
Charles Wagner, a partner at Wagner Sidlofsky LLP, said the law firm is representing The League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, the Vaad Harabonim of Toronto, the umbrella organization for Orthodox rabbis in the Greater Toronto Area, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, all of which have been granted intervenor status.
While Wagner declined to comment on the case, Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said, “We intervened … in order to prevent a serious injustice from being perpetrated against a Jewish family. There is no medical, scientific or academic consensus on the definition of death and attempting to remove Shalom from life support against his own, and his family’s, will is a violation of his right to life and his right to rely on the definition of death used in halakhah (Jewish law).”
Rabbi Asher Vale, director of the Beis Din (religious court) of the Vaad Harabonim, said, “We want the doctors and hospitals to respect our beliefs with respect to the determination of death.
“Jewish parents, for example, want to know that if they admit their child to a hospital, the staff will administer treatment in accordance with their halakhic beliefs. This is a human rights issue. In this case, the family is seeking that medical treatment not be withheld or withdrawn on the basis of a determination of death that Jewish law does not agree with.”
A clear message has to be given that a life is a very important thing.
– Rabbi Michael Csillag
Meanwhile, at the courthouse, Rina Merovitch, one of the community members who came to show her solidarity with the Ouanounou family, said she believed that decisions on life and death properly belong to “ha-Shem” (God) and that according to Jewish law, Ouanounou is still alive.
“We’re not allowed to shorten lives,” she said.
Rabbi Michael Csillag said that he was there “to show support for the family.”
“A clear message has to be given that a life is a very important thing,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope for doctors to decide that a plug should be pulled on somebody. Where does that end?”
One man, who wished to remain anonymous, discounted the neurological definition of death. “I go by halakhah,” he said. “Halakhah determines that he is still alive and you have a duty to keep him alive.”
Meir Halevi, who heads the Jewish Defence League in Canada and who was a spectator in the courtroom, applauded the decorum shown by the mostly religious spectators and the message sent to the judge and lawyers by their numbers.
Let us pray for a miracle.
– Meir Halevi
“Let us pray for a miracle. Keep Nethanel Ouanounou in your prayers. The hospital is in a rush,” he stated in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile, the hospital’s lawyer told Judge Hainey that courts should not become arbiters of religious dogma. While Ouanounou may well maintain a certain religious belief about death, “he is asking society, the doctors, the hospital to abide by that belief.”
“He’s asking the rest of society to act in accordance with his belief,” the lawyer said, adding that the Ouanounou family is asking that the definition of death be changed to one that depends on a person’s religious beliefs.