Better Dead than Alive? A Tale from the Haredi Zone

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel never cease to take the Jewish imagination to places   where no rabbi has ever gone before. A case in point: One Israeli Haredi rabbi, Dovid Kornreich, thinks that homosexuals are better off dead than alive. In one of his popular blogs (his blogspot is called “A Voice from the Wilderness”), the rabbi offers a third possibility for Orthodox Jews who are struggling with their homosexuality—how about trying suicide?

To make his idea more appealing, Kornreich says that such behavior would be permitted provided that person commits suicide “al kiddush HaShem” as a means of sanctifying God’s Holy Name

Sounds pretty weird, no?

Well, the 18th century American philosopher Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “Even the Devil can cite Scripture for his purposes …” Actually, the Devil can even cite Talmud, Maimonides, and Jewish law as well!

Rabbi Kornreich doesn’t seem to realize the every human life is precious and of inestimable value. God created every person to be a unique expression that serves to glorify His Presence in the world. In Judaism, our Sages teach us that the true sanctification of God’s Name does not come with death, but with life. Suicide—even for religious purposes—only applies when the person is confronted by a disease or circumstance that threatens to debilitate the human spirit through a life of intense suffering.

In the case of Samson’s suicide (Judges 16: 30), Samson preferred to destroy himself in order to sanctify his God before the pagan Philistines. Given the choices Samson had, he did not wish to be tortured any further by the enemies of his people.

Thus, when King Saul saw the Philistines approach him, he asked his armor-bearer to kill him, so that he would not be tortured by the enemy in their pagan shrines. However, his armor-bearer refused. In the end, the narrator relates: “So he took his sword and fell on it” (1 Sam. 31:4).

According to the Talmud, After the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Roman soldiers gathered four hundred youths  in Israel and sent to Rome on ships. The children realized  that they would become victims of immorality and abuse at the hands of their Roman captors. They decided it would be better to take their own lives than be  sexually degraded by their new masters.  And so it was, they jumped into the sea and died (T.B. Gittin 53b).

In the famous battle of Masada, Josephus relates how the garrison of Masada committed mass suicide rather than let themselves be captured by their enemies and turned into slaves (Jewish War 7. 8-9). Death was preferable to being deprived of one’s freedom.

Never in the annals of Jewish history have rabbis encouraged sinners to commit suicide as a solution to their addiction. For this rabbi to encourage someone to do so is immoral; moreover, he is placing a stumbling block before the blind, i.e., he is taking advantage of an Orthodox Jew’s state of depression. Perhaps after reading this “learned” rabbi’s article, he will make a rash decision that he will ultimately regret.

It is significant that there is not one documented case of Jews killing homosexuals despite the various prohibitions prescribing the death penalty for having committed this “abomination.”

This rabbi has no reverence for human life.

Here is a Talmudic story that has great relevance for this issue:

Our Rabbis taught: “A person should always be soft as a reed rather than hard as a cedar.” It once happened that Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. While riding on a donkey along a riverbank, he was feeling proud of his Torah learning and progress. Along the path, he discovers a man who is exceedingly ugly. The ugly man greets the rabbi, “Peace be unto my teacher!” However, the rabbi ignored him and did not reply with a greeting. Instead, he said to him, “You worthless person, you are really ugly! Are all the people of your village as ugly as you?” The man replied, “Well, I really don’t know, but why don’t you go to the Craftsman, Who made me and ask Him: ‘My, what an ugly vessel You made!’”

When the rabbi heard these words, he realized that he sinned. He immediately got off his donkey and prostrated himself before the man and exclaimed, “I sinned against you, please forgive me!” But the man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and say to him: ‘How ugly is this vessel that you made!’” And so it was.

Rabbi Elazar walked behind the man until he arrived in his town. The townspeople greeted the famous rabbi, “Peace be unto you our teacher!” The “ugly” man asked the folks who gathered about him, “Whom are you calling teacher?’” The townspeople replied, “This man who is following you!” The man replied, “If this man is a ‘teacher,’ may there never be any more like him!” Shocked by the response, the townspeople asked, “Why would you say such a thing?” And so the strange visitor related the story …. They replied, “Even so, you should forgive him, for he is a man who is great in Torah!” He said, “For your sake, I will forgive him on condition that he never behaves in this manner again.” That is why Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon began expounding the lesson he had personally learned, “A person should always be soft as a reed rather than hard as a cedar” (T.B. Ta’anit 20b).

I think the story has a deep moral. “Ugliness” is for one thing, always in the eye of the beholder. The ugliness of spirit is always much more of serious problem than a physical deformity, as the good rabbi learned. Unlike Greek culture that extolled the beauty of the body, Judaism has always extolled the beauty of the spirit, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears YHWH, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Secondly, it is not for any person to judge another on the basis of one’s appearance; what may be “ugly” to one person, may be considered “beautiful” in the eyes of God. Thirdly, the study of Torah should induce humility in its student and should not be used as a tool to hurt others.

Although we do not know what precisely constituted the man’s “ugliness,” it is not the place of any Sage to criticize the unique creation of God on what we esthetically  consider “beautiful.” God made every human being special because we are made in the likeness of the Divine Image. When we mistreat a human being on the basis of what we perceive to be culturally or aesthetically “ugly,” we are ultimately not only disrespecting God’s unique creation, we are also disrespecting the Craftsman of all Creation. Lastly, the human face–no matter how disfigured it may happen to be–demands that we respond ethically toward that person (Emmanuel Levinas).

Rabbi Kornreich would be very wise to ponder these words and learn some wisdom from Rabbi Elazar.