Eulogy for Dr. George Tiller

By Rabbi David N. Young, Temple Sinai of North Dade Co, Florida
Friday, June 5, 2009

The poet Marcia Falk adapted a poem ascribed only to the name Zelda, called “Each of Us Has a Name,” which reads in part:

Each of us has a name
given by the source of life
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

This past Sunday in Wichita, KS, a man whose name is known to many in the political, social action, and medical communities was shot and killed in his church. He was serving as an usher, handing out programs much like our Shabbat greeters do here at Temple Sinai. His wife was singing in the choir when a man walked in, shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, and ran away.

Dr. Tiller made a name for himself, given to him in many forms. He was named a friend and supporter of Kathleen Sebelius, our current Health and Human Services Secretary. He was dubbed “Tiller the Baby Killer” by Bill O’Reilly. He was labeled hero by the hundreds of cards and letters that line the walls of the Women’s Health Care Center. He was named “Godless Murderer,” and “Church-Going Martyr,” in the same article of the Wichita daily newspaper. He was called father to four, and grandfather to 10.

I have been to Wichita only once—April 9th to 15th, 2006. Natalie and I met Dr. Tiller, and spent time with him in his clinic for a week. We did not want to go, but to us there was no real choice. About a month before our ordination and investiture from HUC, Natalie was 34 weeks pregnant, and we discovered that the baby had microcephaly and lissencephaly. In plain English, the head was too small, and the brain was not developing. The first, second, and third opinions all told us the same thing. Our baby would not live outside the womb. So Natalie and I made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

In the United States, abortion is legal, but it is up to the states to determine limitations or restrictions on these laws. The Women’s Health Care Center in Wichita is one of three locations in the US that legally performs late-term abortions, or abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy. Dr. Tiller was referred to us as the best of those three, so we quickly made plans to fly to Wichita.

Though I do not wish this experience on anyone, I can say that Dr. Tiller deserves his designation as a caring, compassionate professional in his field. My memory is weak about our time there, perhaps subconsciously as a defense mechanism. I remember fake wood paneling on the walls, worn couches in several different waiting areas, and sympathetic faces on everyone on staff.

We were there with three other couples, all going through the same thing, though for different reasons. Not one person was there because of an unwanted pregnancy. All of us were distraught that our babies could not survive outside the womb. Dr. Tiller and his staff guided us gently and honestly through this incredibly painful process.

Throughout our week there, Natalie spent a lot of time asleep or in a drug-induced haze, so I had a lot of time to sit in our hotel room and think. I kept a journal when I could handle it emotionally, and I read. I read emails and magazines, and studied a little Mishnah. I took in the words of Tractate Niddah (5:3) which says, “A day-old son who dies is to his father and mother like a full bridegroom.” This phrase stuck in my mind, especially the use of the word “bridegroom.” There are many words the Talmud uses to distinguish different stages of life. It could have said elderly man, full-grown son, or young man with equal gravity to describe a parent’s loss. Using “bridegroom” must be intentional, and it works on two fronts.

The first is independence. A bridegroom is clearly of an age where the parents have completed raising the child until he is ready to be on his own. They know who he is, the kind of person he is, what interests he has, and what his aspirations are. Their loss equals the loss of a fully developed human being, no matter what age he is.

The second speaks to emptiness. Even before a woman gets pregnant, she is making plans for the child’s life. When a couple discovers that they are going to have a child, the plans begin. If this is the birthday, then this will the Bar Mitzvah. This will be graduation, and hopefully around here is the chuppah. Who knows, maybe by this year we’ll be grandparents! Describing the loss as “like a full bridegroom” reminds us that we are going to miss out on every simchah that might have been, from birth to the wedding and beyond.

Dr. Tiller had an understanding of this pain, perhaps better than anyone who has never gone through it personally. As a doctor he was upfront about everything he was about to do and everything we needed to do to make things go well. When we arrived, he sat all four couples down and told us everything that was going to happen. He showed us the instruments he was going to use. He told us how the drugs would make the women feel. He told them flat out that it was going to hurt and she needed to be ready. He was brutally honest. He told us that he had lost a patient about a year and a half prior to our visit. He asked if we had questions, and when challenged, he answered respectfully and honestly.

He also asked about us. He wanted to know who we were, what we did, and how we lived as couples and families. When it came out that Natalie and I were about to become Jewish clergy, he mentioned that his on-staff chaplain was not Jewish, but he wrote down the name and number of a local Reform rabbi who we might want to talk to. Admittedly, we did not use the number. So the next evening, that rabbi called us in our hotel room. He said Dr. Tiller had called the synagogue, let them know we were in town, and said he suspected we weren’t in a place where we could make the first move. He invited us to Passover Seder at his home two nights later, and said we could decide anytime up to dessert being served that we wanted to show up, and that he would understand if we wanted to keep to ourselves. All because Dr. Tiller cared enough to make sure someone was reaching out to us.

Judaism acknowledges that life is sacred. Dr. Tiller personified the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, putting his own life at risk every day in order to fulfill this value. Jewish tradition dictates that before Kaddish we do not say the name of non-Jews unless they fall under the category of gerei tzedek, the righteous gentiles who live ethical and valiant lives. In that vein we will add Dr. Tiller to Temple Sinai's Kaddish list tonight, honoring him as a ger tzedek.

In the words of Dr. Cheryl Gutmann, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism: "As our hearts and prayers go out to Dr. Tiller’s family, we think of his personal heroism and that of the other brave and courageous providers and professionals who are part of reproductive health centers across this country."

Zelda’s poem closes:

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given
by our death

Zichrono livrachah: May his name be remembered for a blessing