A Matter of Life and Death: The Halakhic Discussion of Suicide as a Philosophical Battleground
In this article, I will explore the philosophical underpinnings behind modern developments in the halakhic approach to suicide. I will begin with a short survey of the halakhic oeuvre on the subject of suicide, with an emphasis on developments in the course of the nineteenth century, a period of significant transformation in the halakhic approach to suicide in Europe. From there, I will continue with an analysis of the philosophical trends underpinning the halakhic developments, examining the overt as well as the ulterior influences of philosophical trends and rabbinic authorities. I will conclude with a summary of the ramifications of the case of halakhic approaches to suicide on the understanding of the formation and development of Orthodox society in the modern era.
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This article deals with the association between halakhic discussion of suicide and philosophical trends. I intend to publish an article in the near future that will present a comprehensive historical survey of the development of the halakha on suicide. The broadest collection of halakhic material on suicide is Yehezel Shraga Lichtenstein’s Suicide: Halakhic, Historical and Philosophical Aspects (Bnei Brak, HaKibbutz HaMeuhad, 2008).
Tractate Semahot 2:2.
Bereshit Rabbah 34:5 (Theodore-Albeck, p. 324).
Pesikta Rabbati, Shemot 34 (Ish Shalom, 124:72). There are variant readings for “murderer”: “need” and “screamer.” I have chosen Ish Shalom’s preferred variant.
Rabbi Saul Lieberman, Hilkhot HaYerushalmi leRabbenu Moshe ben Maimon z”l (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1948), 21.
Augustine, The City of God, trans. John Healy (Darlington, UK: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1950), Vol. I, 20 (p. 25). Augustine brings as evidence to support his view the fact that, in contrast with the prohibition on false witness, which appears at the end of the verse, the verse does not say that you shall not murder your colleague. In his view, the nonspecific formulation “you shall not murder” indicates the prohibition on a person taking one’s own life.
Tractate Semahot, 2:1. It begins with an overarching directive: “[The community] does not concern itself with him in any matter.” The formulation of the passage indicates that the directives “They do not tear their garments or remove their shoes or eulogize, but they stand in the mourners’ line and recite the benediction of the mourners” are breaking down the particulars of the overall directive “[The community] does not concern itself with him in any matter.”
BT Sanhedrin 46b.
A comprehensive survey of the halakhic discussions on suicide for the sake of avoiding forced conversion may be found in Lichtenstein, Suicide, 128–237, 249–71.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 1:11.
Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 345:1.
The scope of this article does not permit a discussion of the geo-halakhic differences between eastern and central European halakhic norms, a worthy discussion in its own right. This was discussed in my doctoral dissertation, which I am preparing for future publication.
Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, Levush, Ateret Zahav 345:1.
Arukh HaShulhan (Warsaw: n.p., 1908), Yoreh De’ah 345:5.
Responsa Chatam Sofer (Pressburg: Shtephan Nirsh, 1839), Yoreh De’ah 2, 326. Kahana noted that part of the responsum was copied from a later responsum, to which I will refer below (Maoz Kahana, “Stability and Change in the Responsa of the Chatam Sofer,” master’s thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2004).
Nachmanides addressed the particular practice of the tearing of the garment, not the entirety of mourning practices. He distinguished between public tearing of the garment, which is for the honor of the deceased, and the tearing of the garment by the family, which fulfills the rabbinic obligation to tear the garment. The exemption cited in Tractate Semahot extends to the broader public, while the relatives are required to tear the garment (Nachmanides, Torat Ha’Adam, “On the Eulogy,” notes by Isser Zalman Meltzer [Jerusalem: Levin-Epstein, 1955], 40). It is worth noting that Nachmanides’s words (“for the tearing of the garment is an obligation”) imply that, in contrast with the view of the Chatam Sofer, the dispute between Nachmanides and Maimonides is focused on the matter of the tearing of the garment, and not with the mourning practices in general.
Responsa Chatam Sofer (Pressburg: Shtephan Nirshi, 1841), Yoreh De’ah 2, 326.
BT Sanhedrin, 47a–b.
Responsa Chatam Sofer (Pressburg: Shtephan Nirshi, 1841), Yoreh De’ah 2, 326.
In this, the Chatam Sofer takes a direction similar to Rabbi Akiva in the Mishnah, who raised the bar of the requirements for executing capital punishment (M. Makkot 1:10). The unintended consequences may also be seen as similar: Rabbi Akiva’s approach is liable to proliferate murderers, while the Chatam Sofer’s approach is liable to proliferate suicides (see the section below, Rabbi Raphael Aharon Ben- Shim’on—Confrontation).
Responsa Chatam Sofer (Pressburg: Shtephan Nirshi, 1841), Even Ha’Ezer 69.
There have been numerous studies touching on Rashab and his pseudepigraphic composition. First and foremost, Moshe Shraga Samet, “Rabbi Shaul Berlin and His Writings,” Kiryat Sefer 43 (1968): 429–41; Samet, “Rabbi Shaul Berlin’s Besamim Rosh: A Historical and Ideological Bibliography,” Kiryat Sefer 48 (1973): 509–23 [Samet, That Which Is New Is Prohibited by the Torah: Episodes in the History of Orthodoxy (Jerusalem: Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, 2005), 45–66]. Shmuel Feiner discussed Berlin’s work in his research on the Enlightenment Movement and the process of secularization undergone by Jewish society in the eighteenth century (Shmuel Feiner, The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth–Century Europe, trans. Chaya Naor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 222–23, 236–38). Neriyah Gutel published an article detailing part of the rabbinic bibliography on the subject: Neriyah Gutel, “Rabbi Isaac Kook’s approach to Besamim Rosh,” Jewish Studies on Internet Journal 5 (2006): 133–40. Kahana’s exposition of the subject in general and the Chatam Sofer’s relations with Rabbi Shaul Berlin in particular is short but comprehensive: Maoz Kahana, From Prague to Pressburg (PhD diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010), 138–44.
Lichtenstein, Suicide, 63–73.
Rabbi Shaul Berlin, Besamim Rosh (Berlin: Jüdische Freyschule, 1793), paragraph 345.
Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathansohn, Responsa Shoel UMeshiv (Lemberg: A. Z. W. Solot print, 1865), First Edition, 1, 1, 223; Rabbi Haim Palachi, Responsa Hayyim BaYad (Izmir: Roditi print, 1873), 112; Rabbi Yosef ben Eliyahu, Responsa Rav Pe’alim (Jerusalem: I. D. Frumkin print, 1912) 3, Yoreh De’ah 29.
David Hume, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul (John Vladimir Price Introduction) (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1992).
Ibid., 22–23, note 5.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, part 10: 42 http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/ assets/pdfs/hume1779.pdf
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 89.
Berlin, Besamim Rosh, 345.
Ibid. Pritzker argues that Berlin’s invective was directed against Voltaire and Reimarus (Asher Pritzker, Sacrilege, Tel Aviv: Tarbut print, 1957, 48–49). The problem with this contention is that neither Voltaire nor Reimarus directly addressed the legitimization of suicide.
Pritzker (Sacrilege, 41) hit the mark on this: “[Rashab’s responsum] is a response of a moment’s passion, a German assault: Suicide due to distress is permitted!”
In Kahana’s view, the Chatam Sofer also internalizes the values of Romanticism (Kahana, From Prague to Pressburg, 325–28).
He was appointed rabbi in Cairo in 1893. His work, The River of Egypt, was first published in 1908. For biographical information, see David Tidhar, “Rabbi Raphael Aharon Ben-Shim’on,” Encyclopedia of the Pioneers and Builders of the Yeshuv: Persons and Pictures (Tel Aviv: Sifriyat HaRishonim, 1977), 5616. Zohar comprehensively studies Rabbi Ben- Shim’on’s rulings in his work, Light on the Eastern Horizon (Tel Aviv: Ha-kibutz Ha-meuchad, 2001), 120–27, 134–36, 139–43, 151–60, 165–68, 170–72,
–81, 384–93). An entire chapter of the book is devoted to Rabbi Ben-Shim’on’s halakhic approach to suicide (159–72). Zohar focuses on analyzing the cultural and social elements embodied in Rabbi Ben-Shim’on’s ruling without going into a broader examination of the issue of suicide. Below, we will seek to expand upon this matter by comparing the ruling in Egypt with parallel rulings in Europe.
Raphael Aharon Ben-Shim’on, The River of Egypt (Jerusalem: n.p., 1975), paragraph 46.
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