Q. Is it really heroic to commit suicide, as some Islamic militants seem to claim?
A. Jewish teaching regards suicide as so abhorrent that the suicide rate amongst Jews is probably the lowest in the world. Only in exceptional circumstances would Jewish morality regard suicide as legitimate.
King Saul fell upon his own sword after he was defeated in battle. The defenders of Massada committed suicide in order to forestall the enemy. During the Holocaust the 92 Beth Yaakov maidens took their own lives to prevent the Nazis defiling them. But the general principle is that suicide is a heinous sin; only God who gave us life has the right to take it away. Only when a suicide is regarded as “in terror or in great pain or his mind was unbalanced” does Jewish law allow such a person normal burial and permit their families the usual mourning procedures.
In Islamic ethics, suicide is placed on a par with murder. Both destroy an edifice created by God. Both are an affront to life. However, it seems that suicide in the course of holy war (though we would question whether any war can be holy) is a way of serving the prophet and one’s place in paradise is not thereby lost.
It is not for us to pass judgment on the ethics of another faith, though as Jews we have to say that we believe there must be a better form of moral heroism than taking one’s own life. Surely it is more heroic to cherish the life God has given you than to destroy it.
But what shocks us and the world is that the suicide bomber not only kills himself but carries out murder, multiple murder. Who is the suicide bomber to decide that it is heroic to hurl death at children enjoying a pizza, at people sitting on a bus, doing their shopping, or even going to a funeral? Murder is murder in anyone’s language. “Live and let live” must be more heroic than “kill and be killed”.