The recent deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have touched a nerve. If anything positive can come from their tragedies it might be to encourage a greater awareness to speak openly about depression, mental illness and suicide. Today, I begin a three-part series about Judaism, suicide and growing awareness in the Jewish community.
Please note that this column deals with suicide and may be difficult for some people to read. Also, if you have any concerns about mental health issues or halachah, please consult an expert who can help you personally.
Although there is no explicit prohibition against “suicide” in the Torah, there are many sources cited for its prohibition in Judaism. The Book of Deuteronomy (30:19) makes clear the sanctity of life when it says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have put before you, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” Chaviva Gordon-Bennett quotes from Ethics of the Fathers (4:22): “… against your will you were created, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give account and reckoning before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Fred Rosner, is a professor of medicine at at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee of the State of New York. In the summer 1970 edition of Tradition, he contributed the article “Suicide in Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic Writings.” The 16-page article can be found online.
Rosner cites some ancient and well-known suicides and references to suicide from classical Jewish sources:
- Samson’s final effort in bringing down the Philistine temple upon himself as well as his enemies is vividly described in the Book of Judges (16: 23-31): “And Samson said: ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bent with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead that he slew at his death were more than they that he slew in his life.”
- The First Book of Samuel (31:1-7) tells of King Saul’s final battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. Not wishing to flee nor to be taken prisoner, King Saul asks his armour bearer to kill him. He refuses, so the king fell upon his own sword. (There is some disagreement whether King Saul was successful but in any event he did try to kill himself.)
- In the Talmud, an incident is related in Tractate Berakhot (23a). A certain student once left his phylacteries on the side of the road in a hole before entering a privy. A harlot passed by and took them. She came to the house of learning and said: “See what so and so gave me for hire.” When the student heard this, he went to the top of a roof and threw himself down and killed himself.
As for the ramifications of suicide in Jewish ritual, Rosner mentions that traditionally someone who intentionally committed suicide was not accorded funeral rites most famously, being buried inside a Jewish cemetery.
But as Rabbi Benjamin Blech points out (in an article he wrote at Aish.com following the suicide of Robin Williams,) “The only one for whom suicide is to be regarded as a grave sin is ‘someone with full knowledge of his actions’ [as Maimonides says, ‘intentionally.’] That, rabbinic authorities have agreed, is a standard from which almost all suicides are to be judged as falling short. “Rabbi Yechiel Epstein (1829–1908), in his classic work the Arukh HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5) states,
‘This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say he acted thus because he was in terror or great pain, or his mind was unbalanced, or he imagined it was right to do what he did because he feared that if he lived he would commit a crime … It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act of folly unless his mind were disturbed.’”
In 2005, the following question was posed to the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, “A member of the Synagogue committed suicide. Is it permitted to follow the regular funeral ritual for him or her? May he or she be buried in a regular plot in the cemetery? Do we perform comforting the mourners?”
Rabbi Kassel Abelson wrote a detailed responsum – adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly – which concludes, “any reason is deemed sufficient to decide that a suicide without full and complete mental capacity, or the result of temporary insanity. A suicide is to be treated like any other death, with the right of burial in the cemetery, and the same ritual of mourning.”
Next time, we will meet parents who have decided to speak out about their children’s suicides. And we will find out how the Israeli army was able to cut its suicide rate in half over the past decade.