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March 28, 1986 - Image 2

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-03-28

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2 Friday, March 28, 1986




Jewish View On Suicide Responds To Shocks From South Africa

Readers of an article in a recent
issue of the South African Jewish
Herald, published in Johannesburg,
must have been shocked to read a report
that suicides were on the increase among
It is equally shocking wherever such
reports may echo and they call for con-
tinuous emphasis on the Jewish regula-
tions disapproving any such resort to end
one's life.
A movement entitled Suicides
Anonymous was organized in Johannes-
burg according to Aviva Climer, who
commenced her report on the claimed
"Suicides in the Jewish ,Community on
the Increase" by stating:
"Last year four prominent
Jewish businessmen committed
suicide," said Mr. Sam Bloom-
berg who runs Suicides Anonym-
ous, speaking at an Academy '74
meeting. He said that Jewish
suicides are increasing every
year and he blames this on the
fact that the Jewish people who
were always like a close-knit
family, have ceased this tradition
in the past 20 years. "Families
are very far apart and there is no
more unity like in the old days."
Mr. Bloomberg was inspired to or-
ganize Suicides Anonymous when his
secretary committed suicide. Setting up
a 24-hour "crisis service at home,"
Bloomberg states his aim is to work for
people who cannot find anything worth
living for and who are confused with the
meaning and value of life. He maintains:
"When people are religious, faith . ele-
vates their lives. Religion satisfies their
needs and that is why the suicide rate
among the religious people is hardly evi-
dent, if at all."
An encouraging comment on the
dangers stemming from suicide trends is
provided by Herbert Kaufman, well-
known Detroit mortician. In his experi-
ence, he said, there were two suicides in
the Jewish community some ten years
ago, another several years later and
practically none throughout the years.
His concern had been, Mr. Kaufman ex-
plained, over the overdose of drugs that
was in practice among the youth for a
few years. "That, too, has markedly de-
clined," he states, with a sense of confi-
dence that it is not repeating.
Rabbi Israel I. Rockove, executive
director of the Hebrew Benevolent


Society and Hebrew Memorial Chapel,
has a similar report.
He states that suicides have dropped
markedly here in the past 12 to 15
He made the interesting comment
that the two suicides in the Hebrew
Memorial experience in the most recent
three years were of elderly. "They were
the result of mental disorders," he
Rabbi Rockove had a very interest-
ing recollection. He recalled that 'about
25 years ago one of Detroit's most bril-
liant scholars, a teacher of the Talmud,
committed suicide. It was the result of
depression resulting from his wife's
death. This equates with the item, closer
to the end of this Commentary, about
the suicide of one of the nation's most
distinguished jurists, Judge Henry
Friendly — attributed more to the death
a year earlier of his wife of 56 years
than to his turning blind.
The subject involving suicides is
never exhausted, even when there is a
single experience in a Jewish commu-
nity, whether in South Africa or any-
where else. Therefore, the Jewish obliga-
tion must ever be taken into account.
The widely acclaimed Jewish Con-
cepts by Rabbi Philip Birnbaum has a
most valued explanatory essay on
suicide, with the Hebrew term for it
hithaduth. It appears on this page.
A Spanish moralist of the 11th Cen-
tury, Joseph Ibn Pakuda, thus judged
those who take their own lives: "A
suicide is a sentinel who deserted his
William Z. Ripley, the American an-
thropologist, gave emphasis to the view
that "suicide is extraordinarily rare
among Jews."
It is worth quoting from Spinoza's
Ethics. "Suicides are weak-minded, and
are overcome by external causes repug-
nant to their nature."
Then there is the lighter-veined
verse in Dorothy Parker's poem Resume
in her book Enough Rough:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
In his most enlightening Treasury of


JeWish prohibition of suicide is based on the traditional interpre-
tation of Genesis 9:5 ("Surely I will require an account of your life's
blood"). Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda, in his ijovoth ha-Levavoth, points
out that the nearer the relation to the murdered person, the more
horrible the crime, and man is closest to himself. A suicide is a sentinel
who deserted his post. It has been noted that a person is considered
a suicide my?, Iii yy 12Nt) only when there is absolute certainty that
he premeditated and committed the act with a clear mind, not troubled
by some great fear or worry which might have caused him temporarily
to lose his mind (Ijatham Soler, Yoreh Deah 326).
The laws of mourning are suspended in the case of a suicide: no
kereah, no eulogy,. no shiv`ah, unless it is evident that the act
prompted by madness or fear of torture, as in the case of king


- Philip. Birnbaum, "Jewish Concepts"

Jewish Quotations, (McGraw Hill), Leo
Rosten has included a very informative
brief essay on suicide. It provides the fol-
loiving additionally-impressive commen-
tary on a subject that often challenges
human concerns:
Suicide is a crime, like mur-
der, in traditional Judaism; and
suicides were denied proper
mourning and burial rites. Yet
the rabbis realized that many (if
not most) of those who took their
lives were mentally sick — and
not responsible for their deeds,
hence could not rightly be con-
demned. Unless a suicide was
clearly unbalanced of mind, the
body was buried in a special
place at one side of a cemetery.
Samson and Saul committed
suicide, as did the whole garrison
at Masada, in 73, to escape cap-
ture by the Romans — about 960
Zealots, under Eleazar ben Jair,
men, women, and children
perished in one mass destruction.
In England, in 1190, the Jews be-
sieged in York 'castle extermined
themselves, except for a few. The
sacred prohibition of suicide was
waived, in these and many other
historic disasters, and in the eyes
of Jews those driven to suicide,
under such hopeless circum-
stances, become heroes, legends
of courage and resolute faith.
The number of Jews who
have committed suicide to excape
torture, incineration, forcible
conversion, slavery or slaughter
is, simply uncountable. The toll
of self-destruction on Austria,
Czechoslovakia, Germany, Po-
land, Franca and all the places
on which the horrors of Nazi rule
fell — no one dare estimate the
number. - L.R.

He who commits suicide bit
by bit, day by day, has lost both
this world and the next one.
Suicide is more reprehensible
than. homicide (the latter may
have justification).
The Testament of Judah Asheri
The man who puts his talents
to selfish• uses commits spiritual
- adapted from Hillel in
"Sayings of the Fathers," 1:13.
Suicide is not a problem that can be
brushed aside perfunctorily. It is a seri-
ous matter with deep human dimensions.
The impending dangers are treated with
great concern in a six-page pamphlet on
suicide in which the University of
California at Los Angeles urges the
watching of fellow students who exhibit
warning signs — like people who are
chronically depressed and hint they
won't be around long or give away prized
These developing concerns are de-
scribed in a New York Times article by
Daniel Goleman on "What Colleges Have
Learned About Suicide."
The University of California
brochure, Goleman points out, lists
phone numbers for students to call uni-
versity police. Goleman's article presents
the following facts:

UCLA's effort is typical of the
reaction at many colleges and
universities to the rise in suicides
among American youths in the
last 30 years. From 1981 to 1983,
the rate was about 8.7 per 100,000
youths, compared with 6.9 in

1974. Sometimes, they occur in
clusters. This month, three stu-
dents from the same Omaha high
school committed suicide.
A school's role in preventing
the deaths of despondent stu-
dents is complicated by the ques-
tion of liability. "Say a student
who is seeing a college counselor
threatens suicide and has a plan,
but the therapist does not take
the threat seriously," said Gary
Pavela, a professor at the Uni-
versity of Maryland Law School.
"If the student commits suicide,
then both the college and the
counselor could be held liable."
Leighton Whitaker, a • Swar-
thmore College psychologist who
advises college officials on
suicides, explained it another
way: "A college is under a legal
obligation to assess and refer for
proper treatment any suicidal
student who comes to their atten-
A turning point in colleges'
attention to the problem came in
1967, when Congress made it il-
legal to discriminate. against the
handicapped, including the emo-
tionally handicapped, in admit-
ting students. This has meant
that applicants cannot be asked
about psychiatric problems and
that a larger number of troubled
students may find their way to
campuses, Dr. Whitaker said.
In any case, psychologists
say, the college community is
well-suited to helping troubled
young people and preventing
suicides. The close contact
among students and faculty
members heightens the probabil-
ity of spotting those at risk. Many
campuses hold specia classes for
resident assistants, the students
who supervice dormitories. At
UCLA, for example, they are in-
structed to watch for certain
danger signs, such as weeping
for no apparent reason, drawing
back from friends or suffering
social or academic crises.
"The resident assistants are
told to err on the side of safety,"
said Morris Holland, an assistant
vice chancellor for student de-
"The numbers of suicides
here vary greatly from year to
year," he continued. "Over the
last five years, it has been be-
tween one and five each year, in
a campus of 35,000 students. It
happens rarely, but we're pre-
pared when it does."
There are about 50 threats
for every successful suicide
among students, Dr. Whitaker
said. And while threats are far
more common among college
women than among men, men are
three to four times more likely to
succeed in killing themselves —
an imbalance that is also true for
the population at large. "Women
are more able to cry out for help
with their emotional needs than
are men," Dr. Whitaker said.
"Twice as many women, students
as men seek help from college
counselors. The higher risk is the
silent and isolated college man
who does not turn to anyone for
At Indiana University in
Bloomington, resident assistants
are warned not to challenge a
Continued on Page 17

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