They Are Falling…

Preserving human life is among the highest duties in Judaism, and suicide is seen as counter to this fundamental value. Human beings are barred even from harming themselves — let alone ending their own lives. Moreover, in traditional Jewish thought, the body belongs to God. As such, ending one’s life is not considered within the scope of a person’s authority.

In traditional Jewish law, suicide is anathema. “No mourning rites are observed for a person who commits suicide, no mourning for him, no eulogizing him, no rending of garments, no removing of shoes, but people should line up to comfort the mourners and recite the mourners blessing and do everything out of respect for the living.” The rule seems to be that the suicide is denied certain honors that are due to the dead. This was later understood to include denying burial in the regular cemetery and burying the suicide in a special section of the cemetery reserved for suicides. It was made clear, however, that the public should participate in everything that is done out of respect for the living. The mourners were not to be denied the comforting that was due the bereaved.

This Jewish understanding of suicide surely seems harsh. How could anyone so callously turn their backs on those who commit suicide in the name of Judaism?

The answer is that, in practice, Jews did not and do not turn away from dealing with the issue of suicide and the families that must live on afterward. Despite Jewish law officially denying a shred of empathy for victims of suicide, Jewish practice is compassionate. Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, in his classic work the Arukh HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5), written in the mid 1890s, states, “This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say the victim acted thus because they were in terror or great pain, or their mind was unbalanced, or they imagined it was right to do what they did for fear that they would commit a crime…It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act unless they were disturbed.”

 Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “The most common element in suicide is psychopathology, or mental illness; of the disparate mental illnesses, a relative few are particularly and powerfully bound to self-inflicted death: the mood disorders (depression and manic-depression) schizophrenia, borderline and antisocial personality disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Study after study in Europe, the United States, Australia, and Asia have shown the unequivocal presence of severe psychopathology in those who die by their own hand; indeed, in all of the major investigations to date, 90 to 95 percent of people who committed suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric illness.”

Of course, I am moved to write about suicide today after losing Anthony Bourdain just a few days after Kate Spade’s taking her life. I didn’t know either of them, but I knew their work. Bourdain, a foodie’s favorite guy, was a fabulous raconteur who took viewers and readers everywhere imaginable to experience the world’s cuisines and the cooks who created it. He was handsome and profane and experienced and fun.

Kate Spade created handbags as bright and as bold and as fun as any ever created. Her name signified fun and flair and life. Her style bespoke a true eye for beauty and elan.

Frank Bruni, in the Times, discusses how powerfully their suicides speak “to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside; between their public faces and their private realities; between their visible swagger and invisible pain. Parts unknown: That was true of Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.

Bourdain’s and Spade’s deaths happened in a week when newly released government statistics revealed a staggering increase in suicides by Americans of more than 25 percent from 1999 to 2016, when nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives. Experts worry that this trajectory reflects a breakdown in social bonds, in community. It’s unclear how or if Bourdain and Spade fit into that picture.”

In fact, it is unclear how and why people take the most drastic step possible when confronting pain or madness or loss: to end it all. For those of us who have been in the terrifying valley of the shadow of death, we know what it’s like to dread the next day. We bemoan the darkness. We languish in the pain. And eventually, with lots of help and love and patience and sometimes medication, we slowly reemerge into the light. But sometimes people end up caught in such stultifying depression that they cannot move. And they fall.

Bourdain was one of those people about whom others said, “I had no idea he was suffering!” And it’s true. As a great therapist once taught me: “There are 2 things you will never know: what someone else is thinking or feeling.” That invisible existential wall that separates us can sometimes be 100 feet tall.

I wish I knew what pushes people to end their lives, people who seem so together, so with it… It is such a mystery and I have no good answer. After doing lots of research, no one else seems to either. There are symptoms and precipitating events. But what leads one person to go and one to stay is shrouded in the fog of the uniqueness of the human soul.

I mourn the loss of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. I mourn the loss of Karen Douglas, Katie Stack, and Roee Grutman. I mourn the loss of thousands of people I did not know who, soul sick, took their own lives. We must keep our hearts open and our arms outstretched to provide shelter from the storm. A warm and loving community is not the answer, not the sole antidote; but it’s a beginning.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day, every day.

Shabbat Shalom


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