Marianne Novak

A healthy brain never plans its own demise: Suicide is not protest

As the Jewish community endures the horrors of October 7th and its seemingly unending aftermath, we have seen all manner of protest from supporters of Palestinians and Hamas spreading outright falsehoods on social media, doxxing Jewish content creators in Australia, public shaming and ridicule of a student body president at UCSB and the violent protests outside a lecture at UC Berkeley – this list is sadly far from complete.

Yet, the world witnessed an even more violent sort of “protest” with the violent immolation death by suicide of US Airman Aaron Bushnell. Hours before his death, Bushnell left a Twitch link on his Facebook page decrying what he deemed the “genocide” the US was committing by supporting Israel’s war against Hamas. Bushnell then live-streamed himself walking towards the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, saying he was going to “…engage in an extreme act of protest.”

Traditional media outlets and social media swarmed onto this information, with many praising Bushnell’s death as the purest form of protest. Many Palestinian supporters saw Bushnell’s act one of laudatory sacrifice. There seemed to be absolutely no doubt among pundits – professional and non-professional alike – that this death by suicide was willing and a true and even sacred sacrifice in the name of righteous protest. Bushnell was immediately promoted to martyr for a just cause.

Bushnell became an instant hero, his actions to be replicated by true believers.

The Jewish tradition has wrestled and continues to struggle with how to categorize death by suicide. From the earliest parts of our tradition, our chachamim understood the prohibition of murder in Genesis 9:5 to include death by suicide. Rashi quoting the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 34:13 notes: את דמכם אדרש מהשופך דם עצמו, … I will surely require from him amongst you who sheds his own blood. This interpretation equates suicide to murder, a mortal sin.

The resulting conceptualizations included many delineations of how many sins are committed by someone who died by suicide and all the punishments accorded to such a crime but with the knowledge that victim and actor are one and the same.

This very harsh view of seeing suicide=murder seems to not have any room to a compassionate interpretation. But the rabbis in seeing suicide as tantamount to murder require the practically insurmountable murder evidentiary standard to evaluating one who had died by suicide. Those particulars – including pairs of witnesses to voiced intent, to giving warnings, not relying upon circumstantial evidence including notes from the deceased.

There is a debate among our sages whether this evidentiary bar could ever or had ever been met for when there are distinct victims and perpetrators let alone when they are one and the same. Simply, it would be almost impossible to characterize a suicide victim as a murderer.
The rabbis in juggling the importance of supporting a Judaism that promotes life with an innate understanding of the human condition (that I would argue has not changed since the beginning of time) also limited the murder/sinful characterization specially to one who had taken her life willingly.

Most scholars see most deaths by suicide as ones coming from distress, fear and other mitigating circumstances which today would most definitely include mental illness and distress. That distress could even include someone who believes that if they live they will only be able to commit many other sins, so that their death by suicide rises to the level of a mitzvah. (See Arukh HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 345:5)

Although there is an overwhelming understanding that no one would die by suicide with a clear mind – בדעת צלולה, the chachamim did reserve the murder/sin qualification for those “…who rebel against goodness and hates the world like some philosophers who do this to rebel against G-d.” (Besamim Rosh, Siman 345). Today this might seem to include someone like Airman Bushnell.

Because of this distinction, even modern mourning handbooks require a specific and detailed investigation to determine whether the death was volitional or not. (See The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning, Rabbi Maurice Lamm.) There are many avenues to determine that the victim did not die willingly, but with the understanding that if the determination is the opposite the most stringent of consequences would be required to occur including, not having a eulogy, truncating the shiva and burying the deceased in the separate part of the cemetery.

But current research on suicidal behavior seems to coming close to proving that no matter the circumstance or supposed reason, no one takes their life willingly, ever. Simply put: a healthy brain does not plan for its own demise.

While the way suicide manifests itself might make it look like someone might be taking their life for a cause – as we saw many Buddhist monks self-immolate during the Vietnam War, an abusive rabbi in the Jewish community dying to escape prosecution or Airman Bushnell’s support for Palestinians – that cause is not the cause of their death. At that moment or over many moments (it seems Bushnell grew up in a cult and suffered emotional and physical abuse), the brain has ceased to function properly.

Airman Bushnell’s death has been horrifyingly glorified by Palestinian supporters as an example of how awful Israel and the IDF are. His death is being exploited to promote the supposed “genocide” narrative. In doing so, Jews around the world might be somewhat reluctant to show compassion for a truly ill man. His livestream aside, no cause alone would necessarily encourage this action unless there was underlying condition.

My condolences go out to Bushnell’s parents. I, sadly, can understand if but slightly, their pain. The belief that his elevation to martyrdom would be comforting to his family is only a continuation of the unending cruelty of Hamas and its supporters.

May his family truly not experience any more pain, especially from those signaling supposed virtue.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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