What does the Torah say about… suicide pacts
• By Rabbi Zvi Solomons
There has been much made in the media about suicide pacts between lovers or people who feel they cannot live without each other. The theme of star-crossed lovers is much worn in English and world literature, based on the idea that those in love cannot envisage a meaningful life without each other.
This is, however, a rather limited view of the world. The pain of bereavement may be hard and difficult to bear for the survivor, but what about friends and relatives? The concept of a couple committing suicide to be with each other in death means the rest of the family have to suffer a double bereavement. Twice the loss at the same time cannot be a good thing. Moreover, we know the emotional pressure to do the thing together can cause people to take their lives in cases where it would be unthinkable otherwise.
The most extreme example of suicide pacts is to be found in the Jonestown event on 18 November 1978 when 918 people committed suicide together, an example of mass hysteria encouraging irrational destruction of life. Judaism emphasises life and the preservation of life. Time and again, the Torah and the Halacha teach us we are to uphold life, never doing anything which might shorten it.
The injunction against suicide comes from Genesis 9:5: “And surely your blood of your lives will I require.” According to Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), a criminal who has committed a capital offence can commit suicide and obtain atonement but this is an exceptional situation and it would be ridiculous to add his or her friends or relatives to the death party.
When a couple decide to commit suicide together one may be trying to escape from pain, perhaps from a painful death through cancer, but the other is usually healthy. It is wrong to persuade another person to do away with is or her life, and raises ethical issues of the emotional vulnerability of the partner who is joining in this activity.
While we do not currently have the practice of discriminating against suicides in our Orthodox cemeteries, suicide pacts should be discouraged. What if the suicide of one does not work? What are the religious implications of killing your healthy self to be with a loved one?
Assuming God punishes those who wilfully do away with their own lives, how can a healthy person who commits suicide alongside a sick partner know they will end up next to them in heaven?And what about the poor family? Suicide pacts only add to the misery of mankind. The Jewish answer is choose life.
• Zvi Solomons is rabbi of Reading Hebrew Congregation