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Marianne Novak
Marianne Novak
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Resisting the temptation to be God’s secretary

The antiquated precept that suicide equals murder is never appropriate even when the death involves one who committed grave transgressions

As a child, I distinctly remember that when someone truly evil died in the world my father would utter the phrase: מיתת רשעים, נוח להם, נוח לעולם. Loosely translated this saying means when evil people die, it provides rest for them and rest for the entire world.

I always understood it to mean, in short, that it’s never bad when an evil person dies, especially if they haven’t received proper punishment in this world, for we as Jews are assured that the ultimate punishment will happen in the next world. There is also a hope that those victims of the evildoer will have some degree of closure even if full comfort is not attainable.

When the abuser/harasser/criminal is a leader in our Jewish community, we sadly wring our hands debating whether such criminal activity really happened, especially when the abuse stems from someone like Haim Walder, a beloved leader and children’s book author. Even when overwhelming evidence and formal criminal charges against the perpetrator are brought, we still can’t seem to move our focus to the victims and the incessant horror they experience and will experience for the rest of their lives.

But what are victims supposed to do now when abuser/harasser/criminal has taken his own life? It begs so many questions. Does death in this way allow for them to rest? To be comforted? Who is served by using and in many cases perverting halakha and tradition to see all suicides as murder? The victims? The families? What does this language do to those who have lost a loved one to Suicide?

For those who want to see Walder as truly evil (and there is no end of victim accounts to do so), there is a temptation to use his suicide as just more evidence of his depravity. There are many classic Jewish texts that liken suicide to the sin of murder, most specifically Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 9:5:

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

‘But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!’

Rashi explains that ‘but for your own life-blood, I will require a reckoning’ means yet your blood I will surely require from him amongst you who sheds his own blood (see Bava Kamma 91b).’ (Sefaria trans.)

The chachamim, strong in their belief about the sinfulness of suicide and desire to deter it in some way, incorporated that understanding in how a death by suicide would be handled, from the burial to the type and duration of the shiva ritual for surviving family members. The Rabbis also, however, subtlely included qualifiers to make the strict enforcement of these rules a very rare occurrence, understanding that death by suicide is already an excruciating matter for surviving family members and that strict rules would do nothing to enforce their overarching belief in life and deter suicide and just add more misery to the family. While they did not have the sophisticated psychiatric and psychological language to understand a suicidal mind, I believe they knew it instinctively. As the Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 345:1 opens with:

דין המאבד עצמו לדעת…

The rule concerning one who has killed himself knowingly…

As treatment, research and understanding into the human condition have progressed, there is an overwhelming consensus that no one takes their life knowingly and certainly not in the way the Shulchan Arukh would quantify as premeditated murder. The following paragraphs in the legal code also delineate a number of exceptions to labeling a death a suicide. If the suicide is a result of distress or fear (as evidenced by King Saul at the end of I Samuel) or there is only circumstantial evidence of suicide, the sages compassionately labeled this death as tragic, like any other tragic death. Today, we understand that no one – no one – who takes their own life is in their ‘right mind’ as a healthy brain does not send signals for one’s self-destruction.

So as we understand suicide in Jewish law today, it becomes particularly complicated when someone who without a doubt committed terrible crimes and has a slew of victims, dies by their own hand. It is an understandable reflex after their deaths, to label the manner in which they died as sinful, to label them murderers. We have a long-standing tradition as Jews to make those who have harmed and murdered us as evil as possible and have them take on the qualities of some alien being.

When Haim Walder died by suicide, many were quick to revert back to suicide =murder designation. In a way, I think by doing so, perhaps they felt they were being good allies to those he had irreparably harmed. Walder’s death could be truly a moment where his death would be נוח לעולם, good for the world. But sadly, his death will only add to the misery of his victims, increasing their already overwhelming sense of guilt and shame at coming forward to expose the horrific behavior of a beloved educator. Now, so many victims will also experience the guilt of his death and this makes their recovery all the more difficult. The possibility of any meaningful closure in this world has been brought to a violent close.

All we do when we use the suicide=murder equation is to make ourselves God’s secretaries. The desire to see God’s justice in this world blinds us to the harm it does to others. We do this to make ourselves feel better. To say at last, ‘The evil one got his just desserts.’ But in reality, it helps no one, it perverts halakha for our virtue signaling and most certainly harms victims in the end.

So in complicated cases such as Walder’s, it behooves us to first and foremost focus on his victims. His death by suicide does not even the score for them. Justice will have to be found in a different way. And yet at the same time, we, as allies, must come to the very difficult realization that yes, he was an extraordinarily evil person, and yes, he died by suicide – holding both realities to truly be compassionate to those he harmed. We need to be extraordinarily careful and clear in our motives when promoting a harmful and misguided view of suicide – even for an evil person.

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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