Daniel M. Cohen

Robin Williams: The most important questions to ask

The death of Robin Williams a few weeks ago sent shockwaves through the world. Williams’ untimely death was tragic; the fact that he died at his own hand made it even more so. The beautiful tributes flooded in, and Williams was memorialized in ways that spoke to the powerful impact he had on so many. Robin Williams not only made people laugh, but he touched the lives far more people than I suspect even he realized.

I have a somewhat unique perspective about Robin Williams’ death. You see, I heard the news and observed the memorials and tributes through the eyes of someone far too familiar with the impact of suicide. And there was something that troubled me. It was not until this morning that I realized what was bothering me… I decided that, for the most part, people weren’t asking the right questions about William’s death.

I was just 15 when my older brother Steve took his life. It was just days after his 18th birthday, and it was just weeks before he would graduate as valedictorian of his high school class. He was supposed to start Yale the following fall. He seemed to have everything going for him. And then, one Thursday Afternoon, he headed into the woods behind my house and his all-too-brief life came to an end.

In the years since my brother’s death, through my own personal experiences and my studies, I have come to realize that many well-meaning people don’t ask the right questions when someone commits suicide. Some typical questions include:

“How did he do it?” This question mostly comes from innocent curiosity, although there is little doubt that there is also a bit of rubber-neck voyeurism mixed in for many. The answer, of course, is irrelevant, since the outcome is the same regardless of what physical mechanism was employed.

“Why did he do it?” This question also comes — most of the time — from innocent curiosity. I suspect, however, that some of the people who ask it are really asking about the factors that might lead them, or one of their loved ones, to be at similar risk. As such, this question may come, in part, out of fear that if one person could despair enough to commit suicide, perhaps others might as well.

“Did we miss anything?” This question is one of the more painful ones, as it potentially puts the responsibility of the suicide on others, while deflecting responsibility from the individual who ended his or her own life.

These may be common questions, but I believe that we should be starting with the question- “What does Jewish tradition have to say about suicide?”

Now before you discount this question, let me explain why I think it is so compelling, even as we remember Robin Williams who was not even Jewish.

The attitude regarding suicide in Jewish tradition is rather clear… Initially. The Torah states, ‘Thou shalt not murder.” (Exodus 20: 13 and Deuteronomy 5: 17). Generations later Maimonides writes that, “He who kills himself is guilty of bloodshed.” (Hilchot Avelut 1)

Writing about Halacha and suicide, and based on the Talmudic tractate known as Smachot (which derives from the word Simcha or joyous event… who said the rabbis of old didn’t understand irony?), Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, Associate Professor of Law at University of Maryland, notes that:

“Judaism regards the taking of one’s life as abhorrent and tantamount to murder. ‘One who intentionally takes one’s life has no share in the world to come.’ Even the mourning rituals of shiva are not observed and such persons are not buried in proximity to other Jews (though they can be buried within a Jewish cemetery).”

But while that may seem overly harsh, he continues – also based on Talmud Smachot –

“In practice, we generally assume that most suicides are the result of unbearable stress, pain, or depression and do not fall within the category of a premeditated, volitional act that is subject to these sanctions.”

In other words, Jewish law not only prohibits suicide, but it also states that the rituals of mourning are withheld from those who take their own life. This seemingly harsh decree is, however, immediately qualified by the understanding that, in most cases, one who takes his own life is in such emotional and spiritual pain that he is not held responsible for his actions. Because of this, and out of a desire to not add additional pain to those who are most impacted by the death, Jewish tradition immediately reinstates the previously prohibited rituals.

In other words, there is an understanding within Jewish tradition that a person who commits suicide often does so out of such a dark place of despair that the restrictions imposed by Jewish law are revoked.

This leads us to the following questions, the ones that I believe we should be asking about Robin William’s and other’s suicides.

The first is both rhetorical and empathic:

“How much pain must he have been in for him to take his own life?”

The second contains a mandate as members of families and communities:

“What can we do to help remove the stigma of mental illness and to better address the kind of pain that leads someone to choose death?”

When we answer those questions, we will have found a way to honor Robin Williams… and my brother.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.