Today’s daf (Yevamot 110b) touches on a topic that I have addressed every year in my ‘Jewish Moral Dilemmas course’, firstly because it is important, secondly because it is painful, thirdly because it is often not addressed until such a situation arises, and lastly because my understanding of the topic was powerfully impacted by a documentary that I watched many years ago.
In terms of our daf, reference is made to the metal competence required by Jewish law for a divorce to be effective (which is a topic that is rigorously addressed in Samuel Wolfman’s article on ‘Mental Disease in Divorce Law in the Responsa Literature and in Rabbinical Court Rulings in Israel’ – Jewish Law Asssociation Studies XII, 2002), and in terms of one area where this question can at times arise is when either a husband or wife develop a disease such as Alzheimers that can severely compromise their mental competence.
Admittedly, in most cases the onset of Alzheimers occurs in later years. However, in 2012 Louis Theroux recorded a documentary titled ‘Extreme Love – Dementia’ where viewers were introduced to Glenn and Selinda, where Selinda – aged 49 and the mother of 9-year-old daughter Caleigh – was already struggling with Alzheimers (see https://youtu.be/ROQxM9-6w0g for a clip about Selinda, Glen and Caleigh).
In terms of the documentary, though it shone a light on the emotional complexities of such a situation, it also provided no clear answers. Instead, it raised the question of how one practically, emotionally and financially cares for a loved one who contracts Alzheimers at a young age. In fact, I was so moved by this topic that I then invested much time learning about this issue and even subsequently delivered a paper at a Jewish Law Association Conference on this subject.
I previously listed some reasons why I teach a class on this topic. However, there is one further reason – which is to teach my students that some questions aren’t easily solved. Ssadly, Selinda died in January 2018 aged 56, but among her many legacies was that her story moved me and so many others, and it has helped us better understand and appreciate the many emotional, moral and legal complexities that arise when people – especially younger people – suffer from Alzheimers.