To be or not to be?

Law and Order (watched while mending the knees of jeans) addressed the question of suicide. I’ll sidestep the issue of assisting someone to commit suicide, because the question which really interests me is: Why should there be any objection to a person killing themselves, if they so choose?

As Americans, “It’s my choice” is an almost irrefutable reason for just about anything. No one is surprised, then, that Reform Judaism took off so well here, with its mantras of “Informed Choice” and “Individual Autonomy” fitting the American psyche so well. And Judaism in general prizes our free will as human beings, seeing in it one of our important connections to God: Being able to make choices is understood to be a way in which we are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26). So why does Judaism, along with Christianity and I assume Islam, frown on suicide?

I remember reading a long time ago that for Christianity, committing suicide is giving into despair, and that’s the ultimate loss of faith. Many folks who attempt or succeed in killing themselves are experiencing despair. I can see why that would be equated with losing faith in God: If you believe that there is really no satisfactory way out of a situation (whether it be one of financial ruin, emotional agony, or physical pain), then you are assigning limits to God’s power. Of course, this point of view does not take into account the overwhelming power of depression to depict existence as utterly futile. I imagine that in a medieval Christian theology, the devil would get the “credit” for causing the feelings of hopelessness that today we understand is biochemical at least in part.

I think that in Judaism, the attitude toward suicide is something like this: That in choosing when to end one’s life, one is usurping God’s decision-making power about life and death, and that’s arrogant. That would be quite a different sin than loss of faith or being seduced by the devil. It would be, in a sense, a violation of the commandment not to set up false gods, in this case one’s own self. B’yado afkid ruchi / b’eyt ishan v’a’ira / v’im ruchi g’vi’ati: In Your hand, says the medieval writer of the hymn Adon Olam, I entrust my soul; and along with my soul, my body. Or as the second prayer of the Amidah says, God is meymeet um’chayey, death-giver and life-giver. We don’t get to choose when we are born; if we choose the moment of our death, we are usurping God’s power. So yes, we have free will, but we also have some very powerful direction on how to use it (that’s what the whole system of mitzvot is all about).

Strictly speaking in Jewish law, a person who commits suicide would not be buried in a Jewish cemetery nor officially mourned by their family. Practically speaking, however, there is a compassionate understanding that a person who kills him or herself is under emotional duress, and therefore is not truly acting out of free choice; so most rabbinic authorities rule that it is permitted — or actually, required — to bury and mourn them as one would mourn any relative. In this as in so many things, the ancient rabbis were good psychologists. They understood that that hypothetical arrogance would really only be present if a person killed themselves while in sound mind and good spirits — which is psychologically almost impossible.

That was one of the points made by this episode of Law and Order: The person who was assisting in the suicide was not even aware of the situation-specific emotional duress that the woman she was helping was under. It was not a truly “free choice” if the woman was distraught over the fact that her boyfriend had just broken up with her. And our rabbis understood that.

But trust the Jewish character (Munch) to come up with what, to me, was the most compelling reason not to commit suicide. When someone dies, there is a huge hole left in the universe of those who love them. After a suicide, those who are left behind suffer extra. They wonder if they could have prevented it. They wonder if they somehow contributed to it. My guess is that most successful suicides come as a surprise, which means that the survivors also have to deal with radical discontinuity between what they thought was going on in their loved one’s life and what they must now guess was the case. And they probably blame themselves for not seeing what was, most likely, carefully hidden from them.

I imagine that often the person who dies thinks that everyone will be better off without them. This is another measure of the disorder of the person’s thinking — because committing suicide leaves an emotional mess behind, rather than cleaning one up. It’s yet another reason why the person is not making a free and reasoned choice, even if they believe that they are.

Suicide disrupts the life and relationships of a family and a community. And from a Jewish point of view, that’s just not the right thing to do. Our focus as a people is on living life, and on how to do that well as part of a web of relationships. Suicide disrupts that web. It hurts other people. And we are not supposed to do that. It’s one of the reasons that Judaism chooses the life of the mother, who already is a fully-realized person whose loss will be felt deeply, over the life of a not-yet-fully-realized child who has not been born yet — if it comes down to a choice.

Musings while the cat makes a late-night visit to the kitchen to say hello.