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Suicide and burial in Judaism

August 16, 2011 Back
Suicide and burial in Judaism

Among the top contentious issues of Judaism is the issue of suicide and burial. The prohibition against suicide stems from a verse in Noah, where, after the flood, God tells Noah that he will demand the blood of any creatures killed. The Rabbis deduce from this that even one’s own blood is included in that statement. Therefore, suicide is prohibited in Judaism. This prohibition can be seen in two ways. The first is as insensitive. Why does the Torah have to prohibit an act that is by itself so against human nature anyway? And what’s the point of prohibiting it? It’s not like a person who has already committed suicide can improve in any way. It may seem logical for Judaism to only prohibit acts, punishment for which can help improve a person and the world, but punishing suicide seems like simply pouring salt on open wounds.

The family of a suicide is traumatized, the friends are heartbroken and usually embarrassed, and the community of the suicide is likewise negatively affected. Why “punish” the suicide even more by prohibiting the act and issuing consequences for it? Hasn’t the family suffered enough?

The other way of looking at the prohibition is as a reverence for life and community. While it is true that punishment of a suicide is pointless, the Torah is not only a means for individual perfection, as it was also given to a nation and not just the nation’s individuals. One of the principles of the Torah is that life does not appear on its own, but is rather God given, and we are not the owners, but only renters. Just as a tenant cannot willfully destroy the apartment he lives in, a tenant on Earth cannot destroy the body he lives in. The prohibition is not directed against the person who has already done the act, but towards the community that is affected by it. The prohibition serves to keep this act away from the realm of communally acceptable, and therefore distances the group from it.

One of the most famous research projects in sociology had to do with suicide, the research done by Emile Durkheim, who found that many suicides were committed because of communal acceptance and commonality of the act. Cases have been reported in Oceania this past decade of waves of young suicides, some failed attempts by teenagers even reporting trying it to see what it felt like.

Once a tenant destroys an apartment and leaves, there is no point in the landlord expelling the tenant, since he is already gone. But if the act had no consequences for anybody, the landlord’s property is more in danger for the next tenant.

In terms of actual punishment, there rarely if ever is any. There is only theoretical punishment, and since the only theoretical punishment that can be given to a dead person has to do with his or her burial and/or the mourning of the family for him or her, the theoretical punishment revolves around the issues of burial or mourning. The Talmud does discuss and bring into question the issue of burial of a suicide, though in practice all suicides are considered not responsible for their actions and therefore not in their right minds and incapable of following commandments at the moment of suicide. In such a way, almost all suicides are buried in Jewish cemeteries.

The negative consequences of the Jewish attitude towards suicide is that it becomes taboo and people shy away from discussing it seriously and even deny that it occurs, preventing them from dealing with the problem if it arises. This is arguably the opposite of what Judaism intended when it prohibited the act. So many other prohibitions are discussed in the community daily, and therefore it is argued by some that discussion of suicide is beneficial for its prevention, especially for people in the community tormented by something and driven to such thoughts.

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