Before discussing the understanding of suicide in Judaism, I believe it is important to clarify certain assumptions about the afterlife that your question raises.Of course, none can absolutely say what happens after we die, for, even though some claim to have lived to describe a “near-death” experience, no one has lived to describe a death experience.Certainly, however, Judaism does maintain that there is a world beyond the one in which we live here and that death is not an end to life but a change in life. There are several Rabbinic conceptions of the afterlife.Each of these conceptions involves some sort of judgment of one’s deeds here on earth and, only according to one of these conceptions, in very limited circumstances, does such a judgment lead to ongoing punishment and suffering in the afterlife (akin to “Hell”). According to the Conservative Movement, suicide does not lead to anything like the classical Christian conception of Hell.
As for the act of suicide, although the Torah certainly prohibits murder (Ex. 20:13), it does not explicitly forbid suicide – the murder of oneself.There are even cases in the Hebrew Bible recounting suicide, such as with Samson (Judges 16:30) and King Saul (I Sam. 31-4-5).
The Rabbis of the Talmud strongly prohibit suicide and speak of it as me’aved atzmo l’da’at – “one who destroys him or herself knowingly.”The Rabbinic view emphasizes that life is the great good and considered a gift.To paraphrase the Mishnah, the conditions of life and death were not of our will; it is not according to our will that we were born and it is not according to our will that we will die (Avot 4:29).Committing suicide is a direct denial of the precious gift of life.Moreover, unlike any other trespass against Jewish law, suicide denies us the opportunity to repent for our misdeed.
Over time, however, rabbis and scholars began to limit the scope of what should be considered suicide.First, suicide is permissible for the sake of Kiddush Hashem (martyrdom), as the Talmud states: “Human life takes precedence over all of the commandments of the Torah except for idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder” (Sanhedrin 74a).In other words, when confronted with one of three above and death, one should choose death.Also, in the 12th century, Maimonides limits the definition of suicide further by restricting it to four conditions: performance with full mental capacity; premeditation; an advanced notice to others; and witnesses (M.T. Hilkhot Aveilim 1:11).
Finally, the key concept to understanding the prohibition of suicide is the issue of doing it “knowingly” or with “full mental capacity.” According to psychologists and religious scholars, one who decides to commit suicide cannot be understood as “in their right mind,” and is, at least temporarily, insane.Therefore, we generally find suicide as an act done without full mental capacity (sh’lo k’da’at), perhaps even considered as a result of an illness of the mind.
Thus, considering the historical development of the issue of suicide throughout the Jewish tradition and current views of suicide in psychology and medicine, the Conservative Movement treats suicide as it would any other death, including full burial and mourning rites. Moreover, suicide does not necessitate a doomed afterlife.
For all practical purposes, we now view someone who has committed suicide as being mentally ill and not responsible for his actions. Therefore we bury him in a Jewish cemetery with all the religious rites, and we say Kaddish for him. Since we believe that G-d also bound Himself by the Torah, we would assume that Hashem follows suit and accepts this person into His real.
First let me say how sorry I am for your loss. The death of a friend is always painful. When the death is by suicide, the grief is often compounded by so many other emotions. I hope you, and his other friends and family, are able to find comfort in memories of happier times.
Your question speaks to two issues in Judaism – Jewish views about suicide, and Jewish beliefs about the afterlife. First let us look at what Judaism has to say about suicide. There is no prohibition against suicide in either the Bible or the Talmud. A post-Talmudic work on mourning and funeral laws, called Semachot or Evel Rabbati, prohibits funeral and mourning rites for someone who has committed suicide. (See http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Death_and_Mourning/Contemporary_Issues/Suicide.shtml )
The passage in Semachot further elaborates that if you find a body hanging on a tree, you cannot assume it was suicide unless witnesses saw him climb the tree and heard him say he was doing so in order to kill himself. Further, a child who commits suicide is not held liable and denied funeral rites, because he clearly was not of sound mind. Thus it is clear that one must be of sound mind and announce his intentionality beforehand, in order for the prohibitions to take effect. The Shulhan Arukh, the definitive code of Jewish law, cites the prohibitions, and yet also says, "We seek all sorts of reasons possible to explain away the man's action, either his fear, or his pain, or temporary insanity, in order not to declare the man a suicide." In a responsum from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform rabbis’ professional organization) written in 1959, the Responsum Committee concluded that full funeral rites should be given, except a eulogy, but even that can be done if it would cause the family too much grief to have it omitted. (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=89&year=arr)
This brings us to the question about hell. Judaism does not really have a concept of hell as Christians do. There are various views of the afterlife in Judaism, as with so many things. In broad strokes, when someone dies, the soul spends 12 months or less in Gehinnom, undergoing purification. What that means is entirely unclear, but most sources do not believe in hellfire or torment. It’s more like a way-station on the way to eternal life in Gan Eden – Paradise, where righteous souls spend eternity. More broadly, Jews tend to talk about the World to Come, which could be synonymous with Gan Eden, or could mean the perfect world that the Messiah will bring. The basic concept is that righteous deeds earn you a place in the World to Come, while sinners will lose their place. So sinners do not suffer eternal torment in hell, as in Christian theology, but do not earn a place in the World to Come or Gan Eden. In terms of someone who commits suicide, some sources might have said that person loses his place in the World to Come, but that might have been something that was said in order to discourage someone from committing suicide, particularly in difficult times in Jewish history when the authorities might have wanted to discourage acts of martyrdom. In the end, Judaism really has no definitive opinion on this question. Ultimately, Jewish views on the afterlife remain vague, as most authorities preferred to focus on how we behave in this world, and leave the unknown of the next world to its secrets.
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