Suicide is prohibited by the Torah, but the Talmud shows great sensitivity when people end their lives in the wake of overwhelming loss. One episode recounted there (Hullin 94a) involves a man who accidentally sold his costly barrel of wine for the price of olive oil. There were some oil drippings on the cover of the barrel and he had mislabeled it as the much cheaper liquid. When he realized he was wiped out financially, he hanged himself.
The rabbis’ response was to caution the public not to drip oil on wine barrels.
Another story involves a dinner party in which the adult guests were given a special dish the children of the family were not permitted to share. Some of the guests felt bad for the little boy coming in and out of the room looking longingly at their food, so they slipped him a few pieces. The father was not privy to these transactions so when he spotted the kid with the goodies in his hand he gave him an angry whack. Somehow the blow caught him the wrong way and the boy was killed. The distressed father could not face what he had done, so he killed himself. The mother, broken by her sudden loss, jumped off the roof as well.
The rabbis’ response was to caution houseguests against overruling the hosts’ parenting choices by giving out forbidden treats.
There is not a word of condemnation for these suicides after the fact, despite their certainly not being recommended. Instead the Talmud quotes a rabbi who bemoaned the loss of three souls over something so petty.
Indeed one such incident (Gittin 57b) is hailed as heroic. A woman was brought before the Roman Emperor with her seven sons. The Emperor gave the children an ultimatum: bow to an idol or die. One by one they refused. The Talmud has them each reciting a brief verse from the Bible against idolatry, but Josephus puts a long speech into the mouth of each martyr, proclaiming their proud belief in one God. As they were taken to be killed, the mother said: “Children, tell your forefather Abraham he only offered up one child, who did not die in the end, while I have given up seven children!” Then she went up to the roof and jumped off, at which time a prophetic voice could be heard to say that mother and children were together joyfully in Heaven.
Students in traditional Jewish grade schools are all taught this story in connection to the holiday of Hannukah. This woman is celebrated as an unmitigated heroine.
The conclusion is clear. Suicide under extreme stress and after devastating loss is tragic but not worthy of condemnation.
By very stark contrast, angry people who take innocent lives as human sacrifices to put an exclamation point upon their suicides should be showered with utter contempt. If you must leave, slip away quietly. Leave an apologetic note without a lot of self-pity and get out.
When these hostage situations develop, when some crazed family member kills parents, siblings, spouses, children, neighbors, police officers and eventually himself, there is no room at all for compassion. This is murder of the worst kind and the perpetrator should be counted among famous spree killers. Whatever dignity the word “suicide” may retain should not be ascribed to these murderers.
In this context we examine the case of the Germanwings copilot who willfully smashed a full passenger plane into the Alps, ending 149 lives besides his own. A French cabinet minister angrily rejected the appellation of “suicide” to this act, and I heartily concur. This is a malicious genocide and the murderer’s willingness to give his own life in the process makes it worse, not better. Just as we admire heroes who give their lives for epic efforts of goodness we must despise zeroes who give their lives for epic efforts of badness.
Germans have a good word for this kind of suicide. They call it selbstmorder — murder of the self. This is not the spark of life extinguished in the chill wind of despair. This is the eldritch screech of deviltry twisting the human heart into an instrument of evil. Sad that we as a society handed 149 innocents into the clutches of the monster.
As for us, people who strive to be decent and constructive and who take our custodial responsibilities seriously, we can take one lesson to heart. It is something I learned back in 1981, when I landed in Israel for the first time at the age of twenty-three. Walking starry-eyed through the streets of Jerusalem, I was astonished at the hardy pace of construction all around the city. Soon I was standing next to one vast excavation where the construction of a large office building was set to begin.
On the corrugated steel fencing the worksite someone had written this message in the name of Rabbi Nachman of Breslau (1772-1810), who made a specialty of encouraging the pessimistic and the despondent: “IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE THE POWER TO DEMOLISH, BELIEVE YOU HAVE THE POWER TO BUILD!”