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?
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.
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.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz