What’s The Jewish View On Suicide Vis-a-Vis Mental Illness?

RobinWilliamsSliderDear Jew in the City,

I know that suicide is technically prohibited in the Torah, but what about people with mental illness (like the recent passing of Robin Williams who suffered from bi-polar disorder)? Is ALL suicide prohibited equally? Does Jewish law consider mental illness a justification for suicide? How do we reconcile the Torah’s prohibition of suicide with our modern understanding of mental health?

Thanks,

C.S.

Dear C.S.,

Please note: the following is not intended to be relied upon for matters of Jewish law. For questions of practical application, please consult your local Orthodox rabbi.

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As a consequence of Robin Williams’ high-profile suicide, many people have been asking about suicide in Jewish law. To quote Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, “Short answer, yes with an if; long answer, no with a but.” In other words, it’s complicated.

First off, suicide is definitely prohibited but there are occasionally mitigating circumstances. The Torah tells us, “I will hold you responsible for the blood of your own lives” (Genesis 9:5). This law was stated to Noah rather than to Moses, meaning that it applies to all mankind, not just to Jews.

There is an important distinction that must be made. You will note – at least if you read the original Hebrew – that the Torah never says “Thou shalt not kill.” It says, “Thou shalt not murder.” There are times when one may, or even must, kill another person. In battle.  Executing a criminal. In self-defense or the defense of another. These acts are killing but they are not murder. Similarly, there may be cases in which killing one’s self is not “self-murder.”

Offhand, I can think of three suicides in Tanach (the Jewish Bible), and three people who considered death preferable to life and even prayed to die. As we will see, there is at least one circumstance that justifies suicide, though I would stop short of saying that it’s ever the recommended course of action.

Our first Biblical suicide was Samson. People misunderstand who Samson was. He was a commando. His mission was to harrass the occupying Philistines as a loose cannon, giving the Jews plausible deniability. At one point, his own people even tried to arrest him and hand him over to the Philistine authorities (the original “PA”). Ultimately, Samson was captured, shaved (robbing him of his great strength), blinded, set to slave labor, and made an object of derision. Life was pretty much over for Samson. He prayed to G-d to restore his strength so that he could take out the Philistines even though this meant that he would also perish in the attempt. We see that this was permissible since G-d granted Samson’s request. While this act certainly resulted in Samson’s own death, I hesitate to consider it suicide per se. I think it is better indicative of the ability a person has to risk his own life for the greater good, be it a fighter pilot running a “suicide mission” or a firefighter saving victims at the cost of his own life. (Please do not play devil’s advocate and try to liken Samson to a suicide bomber. Remember, killing may sometimes be necessary but murder is never permitted. So-called “suicide bombers” kill innocent people indiscriminately. That’s murder.)

The second Biblical suicide I’d like to discuss is Achitofel in the book of II Samuel. Achitofel was an advisor to King David who rebelled and joined the coup of David’s son Avshalom. When Avshalom stopped taking Achitofel’s advice, Achitofel knew that it was inevitable that David would be restored to the throne. Therefore, he pre-emptively took his own life. Our understanding of Achitofel’s actions is this; David would execute Achitofel as a traitor. Those executed for treason had their property confiscated by the authorities, against whom they had rebelled. By committing suicide, Achitofel beat David to the punch, enabling his sons to retain their father’s estate. While that was certainly considerate of Achitofel, it is not a permitted rationale for committing suicide.

Our final Biblical suicide was King Saul. Saul was utterly defeated by the Philistines. He was on the verge of being captured. His options were either a quick death now or torture followed by death at the hands of the Philistines. Saul asked his armor-bearer to finish him off but the request was rightly refused, so Saul did it himself. He is not criticized for this as his death was inevitable and his motivation was merely to avoid the pain of torture. (Please note that the armor-bearer was correct in refusing to kill Saul. Not only that, in II Samuel chapter 1, a man claims to have found Saul mortally wounded and finished him off. He is executed for this. The threat of torture might justify suicide but it does not justify murder.)

Now let’s briefly look at three who prayed to die:

The first, surprisingly, is Moses. In Exodus 32:32, he asks G-d to forgive the Jews. “If not,” he says, then “please erase me from Your book, which You have written.” While people generally assume that Moses meant that G-d should remove him from the Torah, the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b) suggests that Moses is referring to the “Book of Life.” In other words, “forgive the nation or give me death!”

The second is probably the most familiar. After delivering his prophecy to Nineveh – which he did not want to do – the prophet Jonah became a beach-comber. He lived under a gourd plant that provided him with shade. When the plant withered and the sun beat down upon his head, Jonah was distressed and prayed to die. G-d said to Jonah, “You’re despondent because of a tree that you didn’t even plant. Shouldn’t I be concerned about a big city like Nineveh, which is full of people who need guidance?”

Our final case, Job, is a little diiferent in that he was actually being encouraged by others. Originally, Job had everything – family, wealth, prestige, health – and then he lost it all. Things got so bleak that his friends advised him to “curse G-d and die.” Job initially accepted everything that happened to him until he finally snapped and accused G-d of being unfair. G-d then put things into context for Job and ultimately replaced everything that he had lost.

These situations are similar in that they were all born of despair. What we see in these three cases is that things do get better. Had any of these people perished at their low points, they would not have been around to see the improvements. Even Job, who lost his children, ultimately had another reason to live.

(Having completed this, I now remember a fourth person who prayed to die: Elijah, in I Kings chapter 19, so don’t write to tell me that I forgot one! Things got better for him, too.)

Now, as far as mental illness, that is not a justification per se but it is certainly a mitigating factor. To blame a clinically-depressed person for their state of mind is like blaming a diabetic for his state of insulin. “Just suck it up” is an unreasonable expectation; people must be given the help they need. If the unthinkable should happen, the assumption is that the person was not in control of his actions and therefore not responsible. (Traditionally, a suicide is not buried in a Jewish cemetery but nowadays we generally assume that the deceased was the victim of a mental illness and we permit it.) G-d, of course, knows for sure who is and who isn’t in control of their actions.

So, wrapping it all up, suicide is prohibited by the Torah for Jews and non-Jews alike. There are rare cases where suicide might be justifiable, such as to avoid torture. However, assisting a suicide, even in such a case, is still considered murder. In the case of mental illness, suicide is not “justified,” but the person in question is presumed not to have been in a proper state of mind and therefore not responsible for their actions.

 

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz About Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

Comments

  1. I feel like you haven’t fully addressed the issue of suicide caused by mental health. If someone were to read just the beginning of your response- which is understandable because it’s a long one- they would come to the conclusion that suicide is forbidden. Plus, one you get to the end, you reiterate that suicide is prohibited for every person without emphasizing that the suicides that the Torah is talking about were those that were borne out of idol worship. I have heard many Rabbis outright say that most modern suicides are caused by mental illness and are thus not halachically forbidden. I feel like it was slightly insensitive to say that they are not “justifiable;” it doesn’t matter whether a suicide from mental illness is justifiable or not- just as Gd gives some people cancer, He gives others mental illness. On that token, you could say that technically dying in a car accident is not “justifiable” because someone murdered you/you committed suicide. But we don’t hold that to be true.

    I generally like your response, I just feel that you danced around the fact: the fact is most suicides today are not a halachic issue.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Thanks for your response. I definitely say that most suicides today are assumed to be the result of mental illness but I can see your point that it may get buried under all the background information that precedes it.

      I stand by my statement that mental-health related suicides are not “justifiable,” as that suggests a conscious choice and a good reason for making that choice. Suicide to avoid torture is “justifiable.” To illustrate the difference, let’s look at homicide. An abused wife who kills her husband not in a moment of specific self-defense may have committed “justifiable homicide.” That’s very different from “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Similarly, a mentally-ill person who commits suicide is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” halachically-speaking. By definition, they were not in a position to make a conscious choice.

    • I’m reading all this and cant help from feeling that there is alot of halachical dancing around Torah going on, and there is far to much dependance on trying to find Rabbinical opinions that justify their own beliefs and ease the conscience of their increasingly Torahless minds/hearts and to many Rabbi’s willing to aquiesce too modern ideologies, approving Torahless behaviors to maintain popularity and fearing to stand firm on the unchanging Torah of Hashem…

      To think that Hashem had no understanding of the human mind and mental illness when writing His Mitzvot is nonsense and the idea that ‘modern’ understanding of the mental condition is so superior today than the understanding of our ancestors, that an Halachic rewrite is necessary? well I think another ‘…nonsense’ is in order…

      We are not to look to our own understanding or react according to our emotions being stirred. We should not try and write off mentally ill loved ones as having ‘clinical mental illness’ as a medical condition that our corporate behavior has no responsibilty for…..

      You are right in that simply telling them “just suck it up” wont fix things anymore than it would have when we considered it dybbuk possession…the fact is that whatever you call it, and what ever caused the imbalance of chemicals in the brain, whether passed on generationally, caused by life experiences or circumstances…whatever, none of that really matters except in targeting the best ways to combat it and help in the healing or ‘freeing from oppression’ process.

      Medication also wont fix the problem, it only masked it and controls the symptoms, it does not fix the root cause, therapy similarly will not solve it but can help in the post healing and/or in coping, especially for those loved ones dealing with the ‘Oppressed’ or mentally ill person. Do not misunderstand, Im not saying medication dosnt have a purpose, it can be very useful in controling things long enough for true Healing to take place, but its no cure.

      The bottom line is all things wrong in the world are due to Torahlessness and all things can be fixed through Torahfullness, their is only one true healer in the world, who can fix all things,….what was created, then got broken, He can and will re-create is His people whom He loves and Whom truly love Him.

      Not to be insensitive, I know the emotional pain of loving someone suffering from mental illness, we just cannot make up things in our imagination to comfort us that go outside the Torah…..If a person of Yisrael dies outside of Torah they do not enter Olam ha Ba, no if and or buts, our ‘jewishness’ is not enough.
      We are not the judges of this and Hashem is and He may make exceptions because He is the judge and knows what we do not…but all we have is the Torah with which to discern all things, even our halachah must always be weighed against its authority, so instead of hoping to slip through on a technicality, I suggest we find some real assurance, by being as Torahfull as possible…..

  2. I have a follow up question to this article. A few weeks ago, when they thought that the IDF soldier had been kidnapped by Hamas (when he’d actually been killed), I began to wonder if the Israeli Army gives out/would consider giving out cyanide pills to combat soldiers. This ties into your article because one of the stories you tell talks about a person killing themselves to prevent torture. My thoughts on why the army could give out these pills would be to a) protect soldiers incase g-d forbid they’re captured and b) protect innocent people from being killed in the future (via a prisoner swap or if the soldier is forced to tell hamas secrets). Curious what your thoughts are on this? Is this halachically permissible?

    • So here’s a thought (I’m not answering, just maybe adding something to think about)….since Rabbi Abramowitz talks about the fact that these people wouldn’t be alive to see it get better…don’t you think, considering that Gilad Shalit, etc. DID get out…shouldn’t we never assume that? And therefore not even give the option, because it may be perceived as assuming the worst? Just my thought…

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Thanks for your question. The halachic permissibility of such a thing is wayyyyy above my pay grade but I can’t see such a thing catching on. I sincerely doubt it would have very much in the way of public approval.

  3. Meant to post this here….. sorry!

    I am a Latin teacher and am now wondering what the current Jewish thought is on the mass suicide at Masada. I was taught it from a Roman perspective but, as a Jew, I kind of get it. Would it be justifiable in avoiding slavery and, in that enslavement, a denial of their identity? Especially given the period and time when slavery was incredibly common, but becoming a slave via war and outright conquering was considered a most awful path?

  4. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    I intentionally left Masada out of it specifically because it’s so controversial. While the men may or may not have been justified in taking their own lives, I don’t believe that gives them the right to kill their families. I believe the fact that the Talmud doesn’t mention the incident speaks volumes. On the one hand, we cannot condone it because it was not the proper course of action under Jewish law. On the other hand, we don’t condemn it because who can judge what another person does in desperation under such circumstances?

  5. Asher Lovy says:

    Halachic permissibility? Where does halacha even factor into this? Asking whether or not suicide caused by mental illness is halachically permissible is like asking if it’s halachically permissible to die from Influenza. And the examples you brought were downright offensive. There is absolutely no comparison between those suicides and suicides resulting from mental illness. Those were the Jewish equivalent of Hara Kiri.

    Want to know the real halacha? Someone who commits suicide as a result of mental illness is not considered to be transgressing any laws, and is allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery alongside everyone else, because he is considered either a shoteh (mentally deficient) or an ones (the result of an unavoidable circumstance). The cases you brought were utterly irrelevant to the question asked. A person suffering from mental illness has very little choice in whether or not to commit suicide. Whether or not there is any choice is debatable, but even if there is some choice, a person suffering with mental illness’ ability to choose is severely degraded by the disease.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Your complaint is surprising in that you completely agree with me. What you seem to miss is that before addressing suicide due to mental illness, I discuss suicides committed by people in complete control of their faculties, who made conscious decisions. That’s what those examples illustrate. Following that, I say, “Now, as far as mental illness…” and that is the start of that issue.

      Once I get into the mental-health area, I do say that “to blame a clinically-depressed person for their state of mind is like blaming a diabetic for his state of insulin” and that “the person was not in control of his actions and therefore not responsible.” I also mention that the practice is to permit burial in a Jewish cemetery.

      I know it’s a sensitive topic but it seems that you have misread me. Read it again and I think you will find that I actually say all the things you have written.

  6. ramon martin says:

    I have read all the coments and feel something needs to be said. suicide comes from a feelng of hopelessness, a powerfull loss or a form of mental illness like sever depression. when a person suffering depression suffers a major loss like the loss of a loved one, there world has ended. the feelings grow and become to much, the mind plays tricks and by the time they take there life or try to they inside feel a form of forgiveness and peace, they are bathed in it. I know this as fact because I survived. the feeling of forgivness and peace are very very real. the act don’t even feel wrong. it feels like it is right. medication can only go so far. counceling helps only if the person is ready for it. years later I still remember and feel the forgivness that washed over, the sensation of peace. suicide is wrong most of the time but as is the case in all things only god can judge. only god knows if suicide is self murder or because of something else, we do not condem a person for cancer yet we try to condem a person for suicide. keep in mind that what brought the person to suicide was an illness just as harsh and real as cancer, with every bit of pain and suffering.

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