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Physician - Assisted Suicide: A Halachic Approach
Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz


1. Note that although the sources in this article are grounded in halachic texts, Judaism regards its proscription, against suicide as being of universal application. These laws are part of the Noachide Code, applicable to Jews and non-Jews alike. All human beings are created in the image of G-d and all human life must be accorded reverence, respect, and sanctity.

2. Indeed, several years ago, former Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado openly expressed the view that when people reach a stage where they are a net drain to society and consume more than they produce, they should essentially just "walk into the sunset." How easy it is to move from a stance proclaiming "death with dignity" to a position that regards the value of human life as no greater than its contribution to the gross domestic product.

3. One striking example occurred recently in Minnesota where both the patient and her family wanted aggressive, life-prolonging measures to be applied and the physicians went to court to have those measures discontinued. This is hardly the deference to self-determination to which the proponents of the "right to die" supposedly adhere.

4. According to most, but not all, halachic authorities, this dispensation would not encompass the withholding of food, water, or oxygen, contrary to the current state of American law.

5. Two other recorded instances of suicide in the Old Testament should be briefly mentioned. In Judges ______, Samson declares, "Let my soul perish with the Philistines" as he pulls down the columns supporting the temple. His death occurs in the context of vanquishing the enemy and is analogous to a soldier who gives his life fighting for his country, clearly not a suicide as that term is normally understood. The second instance appears in Samuel II. Ahithofel, who sided with Absalom against David, discovers that the rebellion has failed and kills himself. Ahitophel is clearly assigned a villainous role in the Biblical narrative and his behavior can hardly be regarded as normative. Indeed, the Talmud Sanhedrin 90-b states that Ahithofel does not have a share in the world to come.

6. Other interpretations view the Saul narrative in a much more limited way. Some posit that Saul, as leader of the beleaguered Jewish forces, felt that were he captured alive by the Philistines, the anticipated torture and public humiliation would have a devastating impact on combat morale. He thus took his own life to protect the overall war effort. A second interpretation states that Saul was afraid that, as a result of Philistine torture, he would be coerced into idolatrous worship. Since a Jew must indeed be willing to give up his life before submitting to idolatry or renunciation of Judaism, it is argued that one may even actively commit suicide to avoid the greater evil of apostasy or conversion. Under either of these interpretations, pain and suffering alone, no matter how severe, do not furnish justification for suicide in the absence of "combat necessity" or "religious persecution."

7. Some other instances of recorded suicide:

  1. The Babylonian Talmud in Gittin records that a number of young Jewish children captured by the Romans during the conquest of Jerusalem jumped off a ship and drowned. The Talmud praises their act as saintly. The context of the passage indicates, however, that the children would be subject to sexual abuse (including homosexual activity). Since sexual offenses are recognized as among those for which a Jew must give his life, this incident falls under the "religious persecution" rubric. Similar incidents, occurred with female Beth Yaakov students during the Holocaust.
  2. During the crusades, a number of Jewish communities committed mass suicide rather than be captured by Christian troops. The most famous of these was the suicide of 500 Jews in York during the Third Crusade in 1189. Here too, the rationale was the avoidance of forcible conversion to Christianity due to inability to withstand torture. Indeed, some authorities not only condoned suicide but the murder of children. Others found this practice utterly abhorrent and sinful. See Daat Zekainim, Genesis 9:5.
  3. The famous story of Masada where a group of zealots led by Elazer Ben Yair, realizing that their situation was hopeless, took their own lives rather than surrender to the hands of the Roms. To the extent the suicide was "political", i.e., better to be dead than surrender, which is the way the story is commonly interpreted, it is generally regarded as halachically improper. To the extent the decision was taken to avoid torture and protracted pain, its permissibility would hinge on the acceptance of Besamim Rosh's position. If it was done to avoid forcible religious apostasy, the act would have halachic sanction based on the Saul precedent. Not being privy to either the halachic authorities, if any, who advised the zealots or the actual deliberations within the fortress, we can never know for sure.
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