Man is made in the image of God (not in a physical but an intellectual, spiritual and moral sense), so whoever destroys a life also diminishes God.
We are warned to take care of life: Deut. 4:9 (“Take heed to yourself and guard your life diligently”) and Deut. 4:15 (“Take good heed of your lives”).
Both verses are quoted in a Talmudic passage (B’rachot 32b-33a) about a Roman officer who threatened a pious Jew who, because he was praying, did not return the officer’s greeting.
The officer asked, “Does not your law require you to preserve life?” – i.e. “Since your life was endangered because you ignored me, is this not the kind of emergency that allows you to push the religious law aside?”
The pious man replied, “If you had been standing before an earthly king and a friend had come and greeted you, would you have responded?”
“No,” he replied.
“And if you had returned his greeting, what would they have done to you?”
“They would have cut off my head with the sword,” he replied.
He then said to him, “If you would have acted like this before an earthly king, how much more should I do so when I am standing before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He?”
The Roman officer – symbolic of a number of gentiles who had philosophical discussions with Jewish sages – was obviously aware of the rule that one must preserve life at all costs, but not if it involves idolatry, murder and adultery, which one must never commit even in order to stay alive.
Our abhorrence of suicide took time to develop. The Bible does not seem to disapprove explicitly when recounting possible suicides, e.g. Samson (Judges 16:30), Saul (I Samuel 31:4-5), Achitofel (II Samuel 17:23), Zimri (I Kings 6:18) and Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah (the story in the Book of Daniel was interpreted as martyrdom for the sake of God: Pesachim 53b).
In Avodah Zarah 18a, the following story is told: “They found Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon sitting and studying Torah and gathering groups of students whilst holding a Torah scroll. They wrapped him in the scroll and surrounded him with wood and set it alight. They brought tufts of wool soaked in water and placed them over his heart to prevent a quick death… His students said, ‘Open your mouth and let the fire enter more quickly!’ He replied, ‘It is better that He who gave the soul should take it; one should not harm oneself!’
“The executioner asked him, ‘Rabbi, if I raise the flame and remove the tufts of wet wool from your heart, will you bring me into the World to Come?’ He promised him. At once he increased the flame and removed the tufts of wool and the rabbi’s soul departed speedily. The executioner himself then jumped into the fire. A heavenly voice announced, ‘Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon and the executioner are destined for the World to Come!’.”
Ta’anit 29a reports that a Roman legionnaire saved Rabban Gamliel in return for a promise of a place in the World to Come. Having received the promise, the Roman threw himself off a roof and died, and a voice confirmed his place in the World to Come.
Despite these stories, suicide came to be regarded as a great sin, a brazen act of defiance of God. It was clear, however, that some suicides had to be viewed as martyrdom for the faith. Thus the Talmud relates in Gittin 57b (the passage is reminiscent of the Holocaust incident of the 93 Beth Jacob girls) that when 400 Jewish boys and girls were captured “for disgrace” (probably prostitution) by the Romans, they threw themselves into the sea rather than betray the Divine moral law.
In relation to a God-defying suicide, S’machot chapter 2 rules: “We do not occupy ourselves with burial rites for one who suicided intentionally”. But halachah constantly exerted itself to ensure that there would hardly ever be a case deemed to be intentional suicide. Thus the responsa of the Chatam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 326) list considerations which might remove the stigma of intentional suicide, e.g. fear, anger or emotional instability.
(Some halachists were stricter. The Gesher HaChayyim of Rabbi Yechiel Michael Tukachinsky, chapter 25, declares, “A suicide removes all chance of repentance. Instead of death expiating his sins, his death has added to them. He has denied the Divine creation and the belief in immortality”).
In The Holocaust and Halakhah, 1976 (pp. 35-40), IJ Rosenbaum observes that under “normal” circumstances it is unlikely that anyone would ask a rabbi whether they are permitted to suicide. During the Holocaust, such questions were occasionally asked, but there were relatively few suicides and therefore few recorded rabbinic responsa on the subject.
One such responsum is by Rabbi L Oshry, who was asked by a leading Jew in the Kovno ghetto whether he was permitted to kill himself rather than be tortured and killed by the Nazis after seeing his family tortured and killed.
Rabbi Oshry accepts that there are degrees of duress which remove a suicide from the “intentional” category. He defines intentional suicide as “one who is an ingrate and complains even though things are good; who hates the world and rebels against God. But in relation to a tormented soul who can no longer endure his troubles, in his case there is no prohibition.”
Rabbi Oshry, who survived the Holocaust, believes that there were so few suicides among Polish Jews because they did not give up hope and because staying alive was a way of fighting back.