Acute angles: When does suicide become martyrdom?

Dear Rabbi Ingram.  There was much of value to ponder in your thought-provoking essay on the value Judaism places on life and its prohibition of suicide, even when taking the form of “assisted dying” for the terminally ill.

I have often wondered why we celebrate Hannah, the famous mother of seven righteous sons, who threw herself off a building because her pain at seeing each of her sons tortured for remaining steadfast in their faith was too much to bear. She appears to be viewed as a beacon of kiddush Hashem for ending her own life as if somehow her act sanctified G-d.  Is this really the case? I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this story. Warm regards, Chana.

Dear Chana,

Thank you for this excellent question.

The story appears in different versions. Strangely, the name Hannah appears in no ancient source and is thought to originate from an anonymous medieval Spanish editor of Sefer Yosipon. In the Midrash (Eicha Raba 1:50) her name is recorded as Miriam bat Tanchum. In II Maccabees 7 as well as in the Talmudic account (Gittin 57b) she is unnamed and in this latter source – unlike in the other two accounts – the arch-villain is identified not as the Greek Antiochus of Chanuka but a Roman Caesar. However, in each of the stories the outline remains the same. Each of the seven sons was threatened with death unless they abandoned the Torah and/or bowed to an idol. Each, encouraged by the mother, adamantly refused and each was tortured to death. Bereft of all her seven sons, she lost her mind (according to the Midrash it was a few days later, presumably when the reality had sunk in). She was therefore not responsible for her act of suicide. She is regarded as a heroine not because of the way she chose to die but because of the exemplary way she brought up her sons all of whom sanctified G-D’s Name as holy martyrs with her express encouragement

The sons acted nobly and correctly to forfeit their lives in such circumstances, as idolatry – as well as gross sexual immorality and murder – is a yehoreig ve-al ya’avor a cardinal sin for which one must be prepared to surrender one’s life.

In the immediately preceding passage, the Gemara tells the awful tale of four hundred Jewish boys and girls who were captured and taken by ship to Rome – the boys to be homosexually sodomised and the girls to be taken as prostitutes and concubines. The heroic girls took the lead in throwing themselves into the ocean. The boys raised a kal va-chomer, an a fortiori (minor to major) argument. They said: If the girls whose fate was to be forced to act in a way forbidden by the Torah but nevertheless sexually natural, performed this act of martyrdom, then we who are being forced to act in a perverted way, how much more must we! They then also jumped into the sea.  All the boys and the girls were considered by the Gemara as holy martyrs, acting to sanctify G-D’s Name.

In the Nazi camps of death, it is told that there was an incident where a Nazi demanded that Jews handed over a named group of Jews for execution. If they refused, they would all be shot on the spot. They were prepared to surrender their lives rather than hand over this named group to be murdered. In so doing, they acted fully in keeping with Halacha. One must not actively cause the death of another innocent individual (or individuals) to save one’s own life as “who says that your blood is redder than his (or theirs)?” (Sanhedrin 74a) (They were ultimately miraculously spared)  

I have cited above three examples of yehoreg ve-al ya’avor where one is required to relinquish one’s life rather than commit each of the three cardinal sins as illustrated above.

On the other hand, the Sages of the Talmud do not praise those who surrendered their lives at Masada as they were Zealots who preferred to die rather than submit to Roman rule. The Romans of that generation did not threaten the lives of those Jews prepared to submit to such rule nor did they seek to prevent them from observing the Torah.  

Similarly in our day, leading rabbis have ruled that for the sake of a genuine, permanent peace in which Jewish existence would not be compromised but rather enhanced, Israel may surrender land. There is no kosher Jewish equivalent of an Islamic suicide bomber (actually, rightly named, they are homicide bombers) under any circumstances. In reality, this is an entirely theoretical and fanciful scenario as no prospect of such a genuine peace exists.

In other words, suicide in every case other than to avoid the three cardinal sins mentioned above is not approved by Torah law. Indeed, it is regarded as murder. Even if the pain is great. (And I do not presume to judge an individual who opts for assisted dying under conditions of excruciating pain. But I have, as a rabbi, to say that it is not permitted).

This issue has startling relevance in the sadly well-publicized recent case of Chaim Walder, the rabbi who committed suicide rather than face up to charges of rape and abuse of minors. His apologists cited the excruciating shame and embarrassment he faced due to the media publicity as the reason for his suicide. But that cannot be upheld as justification for the act, notwithstanding that trial by media to me is totally abhorrent.

I would just add, while we are on the subject, that some of his victims have lamented the fact that Walder, by his suicide, has “evaded justice”. However, if we believe – as hopefully we do – that yesh Din ve-yesh Dayan, there is heavenly justice and a Heavenly Judge – then Walder has but exchanged the verdict of an earthly judge “whose imprisonment is not everlasting” (Berachot 28b) for G-D’s infallible, immovable and infinite judgement, whatever that may be in this case. He has not evaded ultimate justice. He has hastened it by his own hand.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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