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June 12, 1981 - Image 72

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Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1981-06-12

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72 Friday, June 12, 1981

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Jewish Suicide — Historic Look by Detroit Experts

By BRUCE L. DANTO
and
JOAN M. DANTO

(editor's note: Dr.
Bruce Danto is a clinical
associate professor of
psychiatry at the Wayne
State University School
of Medicine and former
founder and director of
the Suicide and Drug In-
formation Center. Joan
Danto has a master's de-
gree in social work. The
following study is taken
from a paper they pre-
sented in April to the
American Association of
Suicidology. It is based
on 11 years of research.
(This part of the study
deals with historic back-
ground and Jewish atti-
tudes on suicide. Next
week, the second part of
this study will deal statis-
tically with Jewish
suicides in Oakland
County.)
One of the earlier reports
of Jewish suicide came at
the end of the 19th Century
from Emile Durkheim. His
findings revealed that Jews
displayed a lower rate of
suicide than either Protes-
tants or Catholics. Others
have attributed his findings
to the strong prohibitions
against .suicide within the
religion and culture of Jews.
This in itself would have lit-
tle actual meaning because
both of the other religions
have similar strong taboos
against suicide.
Others have argued that
suicide is low amorig Jews
because of their close-knit,
highly-structured families,
in which family members
receive support when they
need it. This sociological
view of the Jewish family is
an attractive explanation,
inasmuch as it has also been
reported that personal prob-
lems seriously prevalent
among members of other
religious and/or ethnic
groups — such as alcohol
abuse, drug dependency, di-
vorce, and homicide- — are
much lower among Jews.
Current experience, how-
ever, at least on the basis of
anecdotal accounts and
common concerns in Jewish
publications, shows that di-
vorce has risen among Jews,
a number of young Jews
have left their identity as
Jews and have opted either
for no religious or ethnic
image as Jews, or have in-
termarried.
Thus it would appear to
most Jews today that the
once almost sacred sociolog-
ical notion about the invul-
nerable structure and func-
tion of the Jewish family is
no longer the case and ap-
pears to be changing.
All Jews have been
taught the basic value of
preserving life. With the

concept of preserving life
so important to Jews, it
should ' follow that
suicide is necessarily a
threat to this basic value.
As a voluntary action,
however, suicide is not
forbidden in the Talmud
itself. Yet, post-Talmudic
scholars have viewed
suicide as being such a
significant sin that they
consider it to be greater
than homicide.
The Midrash seems to
view suicide as being rare
and does express a prohibi-
tion against it. It excludes,
however, the suicides of
Saul, Hananiah, Mishael
and Azariah. Saul was con-
sidered an exception to the
prohibition against suicide
according to the Shulhan
Arukh because he knew the
Philistines would have put
him to death; Jewish schol-
ars felt that he was entitled
to rob them of that decision
and fate.
Samson's suicide was ex-
tolled in Siftei Kohen (ad
loc) because it was felt to
have heralded the death of
the Philistines. Another ex-
ception to a view of suicide
as sin was seen in one of the
most famous stories of
suicide, Masada. In the
later historical situation it
was acceptable to commit
suicide rather than trans-
gress by submitting to slav-
ery, especially from a
foreign power.
It was in the post-
Talmudic period that
Jewish law against suicide
was formulated. Rites for
those who committed
suicide were not permitted
but anything designed to
pay respect to the mourners
was permitted.
In the ancient Hebraic
law a distinction was
made between suicide
while of sound or un-
sound mind. If a person
with an unsound mind
committed suicide, there
was no denial of grace or
rights of burial with the
shrouds and usual cere-
monies. Similarly,
suicide by a child was
excluded from social and
religious sanction.
Thus, only if there was
clear-cut intent was the
suicide considered to be the
product of a sound mind.
Clearly, the suicidal person
had to announce his intent
by verbal or written state-
ment for his act to be con-
sidered of sound mind.
On the other hand, if a
man was found hanging
from a tree without evi-
dence of intent communi-
cated to others, the suicide
was considered to be the
lethal result of an unsound
mind, and thus acceptable.
As an expression of gen-
eral historical Jewish am-

bivalent feelings about
suicide, there was until
more recent times a policy
in many Jewish cemeteries
to bury suicided persons in
special sections. This prac-
tice has just about faded in
more contemporary times.
As has been already
discussed, there were
certain exceptions to
religiously unsanctioned
suicide. The biblical
examples have been men-
tioned but there were
complementary *ones also
in more modern times. In
World War II, many Jews
committed suicide in

might be termed "ac-
ceptable suicide," He-
brew Scripture focuses
on six historical figures.
In 1200 BCE Abimelch
killed himself by causing
a skull fracture with a
sword. In 876 BCE Zimri
burned himself to death
after a defeat in battle. It
was viewed that their
suicides followed sinful
conduct in their lives,
both having directed
massacres in their rise to
power.
The death of Saul who
used a sword after defeat in
battle as did his armor-

BRUCE DANTO

JOAN DANTO

concentration camps. In
the Middle Ages there
had been 'massive
suicides of Jews in order
for them to avoid massive
baptism.
Suicide by Jews under
these circumstances was
considered to be "Kidush
Ha-Shem," sanctification to
God, an acceptable alterna-
tive. Such acts have been
unusual because the ex-
tenuating historical and
politically acceptable condi-
tions for honor through
suicide have been rare.
In addition to suicide as
an acceptable act under
duress, in Judaism it has
been considered acceptable
historically if the suicide
was designed to relieve sin-
fulness over some act either
done or planned. Thus,
suicide was apparently pre-
ferred as an alternative to
the commission of idolotry,
adultery or murder.
Although it was pointed
out earlier that a suicide
would be presumed to be
either involuntary or a
product of an unsound
mind, if the intent was
demonstrated or proven, it
was the reverse in the case
of an attempted suicide. In
the latter case the person
subjected himself to
punishment, even flogging
(makkat mardut). Fur-
thermore, it was considered
necessary to inflict punish-
ment in the form of flogging
or imprisonment if suicide
reached or approached some
epidemic proportions.
As examples of what

bearer in 1020 BCE, was
viewed as an example of
honor achieved through
suicide. They both faced
mortal danger and loss of
power at the hands of the
enemy. Ahitophel chose
strangulation as his method
of suicide in association
with his choice of freedom
over defeat and disgrace, as
did Samson in 1100 BCE
when he achieved grandeur
and great symbolic power
through his death.
Significant about the
suicides of these leaders in
the ,history of Judaism is
that all were men, all were
prominent, and all had
rather clear-cut precipitat-
ing circumstances to their
voluntaiy suicides. They
were all caught in historical
crises and faced mortal
danger in rapidly changing
sets of circumstances. Sac-
rifice of their lives to save
honor resembles the old sea
captain's action, expected to
choose going down with his
ship. In contrast, in modern
times there appears to be a
way of preserving honor de-
spite surrender and cap-
ture.
An opposite symbolism is
reflected in Hebrew Scrip-
ture as well. For example,
the prophets Elijah, Jonah
and Job all expressed a de-
gree of depression that was
near suicidal and yet ulti-
mately these three figures
rejected suicide. Certainly
they stand in unison as an
argument against the act.
Durkheim demon-
strated at the end of the
19th Century that Jews
had a low suicide rate. He
measures suicide in var-
ious countries in terms of
cases per million per-
sons, a concept which dif-
fers from present day
measures, which utilize a
rate of cases per 100,000
persons. In 1925, how-
ever, it was estimated
that Jews in New York

committed suicide at a
rate of 10 per 100,000,
which was about the
same for all of the United
States in the period from
1950 to 1959. .
Jews in Ireland commit-
ted suicide at the rate of
three per 100,000 in the
same period (1925); in De-
nmark, it was 23 per
100,000 for the same period.
The rate in Israel during
1952 to 1958 was 10 per
100,000; during 1949 to
1959, the rate was 15 per
100,000 for ,children and
adults over 15 years of age.
In the same period, the
rate for women in Israel was
never less than half the rate
for men. This was in con-
trast with a ratio of 3:1 of
men over women in Europe.
The equality between the
sexes in suicide was ek-
plained on the basis of
equality in their lives in Is-
rael. Others felt that a slac-
kening of Orthodoxy might
have also brought about a
leveling between men and
women.
For the period of 1949
to 1966, Israel's Central
Bureau of Statistics
showed that Israel's rate
was lower than the
United States but higher
than that of Norway and
the Netherlands. Those
figures revealed that
twice as many married
persons might commit
suicide as single and di-
vorced persons. A large
percentage of the
suicides were widows
and widowers; the inci-
dence of suicide rose with
age.
During that same period,
female suicides were high
and the male rate was 1.3
times that of females, actu-
ally a low sex ratio. In Is-
rael, Jews of European birth
had higher rates than. those
Jews from Africa who had
the lowest rate, and the rate
for native-born Jews was in
the middle.
Death from suicide in Is-
rael drops on Friday and
especially on Saturday, the
Jewish Sabbath.
There have been about
230 collective settlements
(kibutzim) throughout Is-
rael in which the emotional
support systems available
have been remarkably help-
ful. Equality between the
sexes and marking the set-
tlements more dominant
than the family unit itself
have produced a more self-
sufficient, active, and confi-
dent child.
Army records support
this view. More children
from these settlements
show a higher percent-
age of officer ratings. In
the period of 1962 to 1966,
adults from these settle-
ments accounted for only
four percent of the total
suicides for the country.
Younger members ac-
counted for 1.3 percent;
the private enterprise
type settlement known as
a moshav accounted for
2.1 percent.
Arthur Ruppin reported
that in Warsaw in 1927 to
1932, 49.4 percent of the
Jewish suicides were corn-

mitted by women. In 1890,
Durkheim quoted a rate of
18 per million for Jews in
Prussia; in 1926 Ruppin
gave the rate as 50 — but it
is not known if this Was per
million or 100,000 persons.
Dr. Janice Goldstein of
the American Jewish
Committee conducted some
research among senior citi-
zens of Miami, Fla. Al-
though the time period of
the study was not specified,
it was assumed to be very
recent. In addition, her -
search method was not
ported at the time of the re-
port cited, but she deter-
mined the suicide rate
among elderly Jewish
Miami residents is 50 per
100,000, and the national
rate for this age group is
11.5 per 100,000.
Suicides for this age
group in South Miami make
up 53 percent of the total
percentage of suicides for all
of Miami. Among the el-
derly who reside in South
Miami Beach, 25.7 percent
live alone. She believes that
suicide among the elderly
Jewish residents of that
community is precipitated
by living alone, fear of
crime, fear of losing their
homes to redevelopment,
economic problems, and
being cut off from family
and community support.
It should be apparent
from the data reviewed thus
far that little is known
about Jewish suicide in any
country. Little effort has
been exerted to keep track
of trends within any par-
ticular religious or ethnic
• group. Traditionally, more
information has been col-
lected regarding black ver-
sus white, old versus young,
and male versus female
suicides.
Our study was designed
to look at a particular com-
munity close at hand: Oak-
land County, Michigan. Be-
cause this county shows a
relatively strong population
growth pattern from 1970 to
1980, and because it is
common knowledge that the
majority of Jews in Michi-
gan reside in this county, it
was felt that it offered a
suitable location in which to
study Jewish suicide.
(Continued next week)

British Adviser
Warns of Terror

NEW YORK — Robert
Moss, an international
authority on terrorism, has
warned that the United
States is "wide open" to ter-
rorist attack and sabot
and has predicted mor,
sassination attempts
against public figures, both
here and abroad.
Moss, who has lectured
before Britain's Royal Col-
lege of Defense Studies and
has served as foreign policy
adviser to Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher, told the
Anti-Defamation League of
Bnai Brith that the only ef-
fective way to prevent at-
tacks on U.S. energy
facilities and other vital in-
stallations is to "infiltrate"
terror networks and "nip
their plots in the bud.';

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