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Robin Williams’ Suicide

Robin Williams’ Suicide

A Jewish perspective on the tragedy of suicide.


People around the world are expressing shock and sadness over the death of Robin Williams who took his own life after many years of battling addiction and depression.

In Jewish tradition, suicide is a severe sin. In a sense, it is akin to murder. Life is a gift from God and only He has the right to take it away.

As the Talmud puts it: "Against your will you were fashioned, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:29).

The body belongs to the Almighty, and no one is permitted to harm, jeopardize or destroy His property.

Jewish law decrees that the body belongs to the Almighty, and no one is permitted to harm, jeopardize or destroy His property. In the words of Genesis 9:5, “I will surely require an accounting for your life-blood,” and the sages make clear this includes a suicide.

Which is why the Jewish response to suicide is at first sight so harsh. Indeed, the standard Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, stipulates that the normal rites of mourning are not to be observed for a suicide, nor is there even allowed for a eulogy to be given.

And yet, when someone just asked me, “As an Orthodox Rabbi, would you have performed a traditional funeral and delivered a eulogy for Robin Williams if he were Jewish?” I gave an unqualified affirmative answer.

Why? Because even as Jewish law expresses its categorical contempt for suicide as a viable option it makes clear its empathy for those acting under the kinds of compulsion brought on by depression and other forms of mental illness.

The only one for whom suicide is to be regarded as a grave sin is “someone with full knowledge of his actions.” That, rabbinic authorities have agreed, is a standard from which almost all suicides are to be judged as falling short. Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, in his classic work the Arukh HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5) states, “This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say he acted thus because he was in terror or great pain, or his mind was unbalanced, or he imagined it was right to do what he did because he feared that if he lived he would commit a crime…It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act of folly unless his mind were disturbed.”

Jewish law found a beautiful balance between abhorrence of an act before it is committed and compassion for the victims of self-destruction in the aftermath of its tragedy.

Not Yours to Take

Jewish law found a beautiful balance between abhorrence of an act before it is committed and compassion for the victims of self-destruction in the aftermath of its tragedy.

The mindset of every Jew was always meant to be that no matter his difficulties, his own life was not his to take. The story of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, whose death is recorded in the Talmud, served as an extreme example. When the Romans wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set fire to it, the rabbi’s pupils urged him to open his mouth, inhale the fire and hasten his death. He replied, “He who put the soul in the body is the One to remove it; no human may destroy himself!”

In The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature, Rabbi H.J. Zimmels writes of two opposing emotions amongst European Jews at the time of the Holocaust – pessimism and despair leading to suicide, and optimism and hope leading to a strong will to survive. One would certainly have imagined that the former would have outweighed the latter. Yet it was not so. Historians have been amazed by the strikingly small percentages of suicides by Jews in the very worst of situations.

But that never meant that there were not moments when individuals believed that death was their better choice and voluntarily ended their lives. For them we shed tears, and in most instances try to find vindication, if not justification. King Saul fell on his sword when the Philistines were about to capture and kill him. On his behalf the rabbis pleaded that a king of Israel is entitled to defend the dignity of the royal office and so his suicide could be forgiven as an attempt to prevent a greater desecration of God’s name through an ignominious and tortured death perpetrated by enemies.

For those who know the severity of depression as well as the super human strength required to overcome it, we ought to show great respect to those who persist in choosing life - and find in our hearts forgiveness and understanding for those overcome by mental illness who left us too soon but whose achievements and good deeds will nonetheless never be forgotten.

That is why, Robin Williams, I treasure the laughter you gave me for so many years and I pray that your soul at long last finds the peace and serenity it did not attain here on earth.

If you are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please seek help.

You can call: Relief, a mental health referral agency (718) 431-9501.

Suicide Hotline (718) 389-9608

Or Ohel Family: 800-603-OHEL

Published: August 13, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 41

(25) Nikki, September 10, 2015 5:51 AM

This type of subject hits home. I understand why people may resent those who commit suicide since it hurts those around them and violates their belief on God. But there are psychological and neurological evidence that supports that a person who is suicidal has their mindset distorted as compared to a healthy patient who does not suffer from addiction and depression. In no way do I justify for someone to commit suicide, but we can't look at it point blank on either side since it would still damage, whether if it's to promote suicide or condemn the existence of people who contemplate for any reason. If anyone suspects that their loved ones are acting different (withdrawn, addiction, etc.) and that they are at some existential crisis then please understand enough to help or direct them to get help as it does make a difference.

(24) Sharon, December 3, 2014 10:23 PM

My Jewish friend killed himself a few weeks ago

I am not Jewish, but had a close Jewish male friend who killed himself a few weeks ago. He took some barbiturates, along with opioid pain meds to kill himself in a painless way. He was not actively involved in the Jewish religion, but was involved in new age teachings. He planned his own death and he told me about his plans to kill himself a year earlier. He was suffering from loneliness and sleep problems.

(23) SusanE, August 19, 2014 12:03 AM

We Can't Judge Him.

Who of us can say what demons he was harboring. He had begun abusing alcohol again. He said in an interview that he didn't want to, but started drinking again anyway. He knew he would have addictions the rest of his life. He also learned recently that he had Parkinsons Disease, an insidious and devastating disease for which there is treatment but no cure. Like addiction it is also a disease of the brain. Alcohol calms that part of the brain.~~~~~ My dear friend was 8 years into Parkinsons with brain surgeries and implants. Two weeks after a brain surgery she learned she was in a stage 4 fatal cancer. She fought with ALL her energy to fight both diseases. Her final 18 months of life were illness 4 major surgeries. Dr. visits, chemo rounds. But yet we would go out for lunch, to the grocery store, down to visit her daughter. She didn't need 24 hour care but she needed 24 hour company for those 18 months. She had amazing friends who stayed with her throughout. I must say the last few months were terrible so much that her Dr. actually told her she could quit treatment anytime she choose. She quit only when her body could no longer accept food or the chemo drugs. She quit and 4 days later she died. ~~~~ When we think of Robin Williams and his battle with addictions...we know he had the best resources for treatment, the finest Physicians for care and treatment, and a loving family. Like my friend who worked so hard to live and finally had to give up her life by stopping treatment, Robin might have felt he had to give up too. Her body failed her. He fought his disease, addiction, for 20 years to save his life.. Perhaps it was his brain that had the disease and the addiction that failed him. I won't judge him, he fought it for 20 years and it returned.

(22) Raphaelle Do Lern Hwei, August 18, 2014 6:09 AM

Appearances Decieve

I am saddened about Robin Williams' sudden death by suicide. He is one of the few celebrities who seem to be able to handle his own life and not succumb to substance addictions and relational conflicts.
From the news reports of Robin Williams' demise, I can see that he was working hard all his life at his acting career and maintaining a healthy family relationship to all appearances. His substance abuse was minimal.
There could be a gnawing dissatisfaction throughout his life. Maybe a search for perfection not to be found on this side of heaven. Hope that sincere, earnest and hardworking people like Robin Williams will find their true identity as in the eyes of the Almighty.
RIP Robin Williams...

(21) erin, August 17, 2014 8:40 PM

I agree, the Almighty knows our hearts and our minds.

Thank you for having compassion on someone who gave to us things we could not get for ourselves. We don't know who G_d crushes and who He lifts up. So we love everyone and wait for the truth.May you be blessed. And Thank You, Abba.

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