Torah for Today – 11/04/14

Torah for Today – 11/04/14

Torah For TodayWhat the Torah says about…L’Wren Scott’s Suicide

By Rabbi Zvi Solomons

The recent death of L’Wren Scott and the turmoil it has caused to her long-time partner Mick Jagger brings the pain and hurt of suicide to our attention yet again.

The death of a loved-one is always hard to cope with emotionally, and there is no such thing as a death that is not sudden or unexpected, no matter how long one has prepared for it.

Traditionally, Judaism saw suicide as a form of revolt against God. As Hamlet paraphrases the halacha: “the Almighty has set his cannon against self-slaughter”.

In some ways, the law of the land still recognises this approach to suicide, in that it remains a criminal offence to assist someone to kill themselves. In Judaism, where it can be shown that a person is acting out of rebellion against God, suicide is an act of spite for which there can be no expiation. This is why until recently suicides were buried six feet away from the other Jews in the cemetery and not given the same funeral honours as their fellows.

In some ways, the killing of oneself can be seen as a betrayal, not only of God, but of one’s friends and family, perhaps the ultimate act of rebellion and disrespect. Yet how many people deliberately do this?

When a person is beset by problems they are sure to seek to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them”. The torment of one’s own mind, or the severe concerns about physical torture be it at the hands of others (think only of Masada and York) or through uncontrollable pain of disease, these provide reasons for killing oneself for which the deceased cannot be blamed.

We have the example of King Shaul, who impaled himself on his sword and even gave orders for his own cremation rather than suffer bodily abuse at the hands of the Philistines. When a person kills themselves, it does not follow that they are necessarily a suicide.

A competent rabbinic authority should be consulted, as in almost every case there are mitigating circumstances. Even in the extreme situation where a person is shown to have been acting rationally and without any other considerations, the family are to be respected – it is only the aspects of mourning reserved for the deceased that are suspended, not those that show respect for the living such as shiva.

These days, almost everyone who kills themselves is seen to be suffering from mental anguish. Suicides of this sort are not in denial of God, but usually crying out for help, from their family or from society. That they have died is due to a momentary lack of self-control.

To seek to stigmatise such a person is cruel and unfair on them and on their loved-ones. Judaism is a religion of love. When a person dies at their own hand, our job is to support their loved ones and help them through the anguish of their loss.

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