Breaking the Silence on the Suicide of a U.S.-Israeli Soldier

Unlike the community rabbis who failed to help David Menachem Gordon bring those who sexually abused him to justice, the rabbis who dealt with his apparent suicide acted compassionately. Only then, it was too late.

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A screenshot of the website LiveStream showing a video of David Menachem Gordon's funeral.
A screenshot of the website LiveStream showing a video of David Menachem Gordon's funeral.

On Tuesday, August 19, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit announced that Cpl. David Menachem Gordon, who had been missing since Sunday, was found dead in central Israel, his weapon at his side. In contrast with media coverage of other cases under suspicious circumstances, the language here was extremely terse and circumspect. We understood from the code phrase, “weapon at his side,” that Gordon had committed suicide.

In Judaism, we are enjoined to be particularly careful with our speech. Often times, we prefer to be silent – as was the case with the circumstances surrounding David Gordon’s death – to subjugate our will to the Divine Will, which the halakha (Jewish law) then utilizes constructively. However, there are times when silence can be destructive and self-serving, as the halakha also understands shtika k’hodaya, silence implies consent.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains that Judaism views suicide as a criminal act. A source for the prohibition against suicide is found in the story of Noah's Ark. After the flood, God says to Noah, “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man”(Genesis 9:5).

The Talmud (Bava Kama 90b) elucidates that "And surely the blood of your lives I will demand," means one may not wound his own body, and, all the more so, one may not take one’s own life.

In addition to physical death, there are spiritual consequences to suicide. According to halakha, no full Jewish burial may be granted to someone who took his own life, and it is questionable whether shiva (the traditional seven-day mourning period) should be observed, or whether the kaddish prayer may be recited by close relatives.

Since today we understand that the causes leading to a suicide are often linked to mental illness, we view the act as being b’ones, uncontrollable, and therefore free of the prescribed halakhic consequences. Part of the process that enables this leniency is the silence before the funeral on the circumstances of death; a custom that is widely respected across the Jewish world. Silence is particularly considerate to the family struggling not just with their loss, but also with the reason for it.

On Thursday, August 21, David Menachem Gordon was buried on Mount Herzl with full military honors next to the graves of his comrades who had been killed during Operation Protective Edge. In their eulogies, his father, his commanding officer, and his friends all spoke of David’s life and his achievements; his extraordinary efforts in helping and positively affecting others, most recently the exemplary soldier he had become during his service in the IDF. Also mentioned and quoted from was his online blog, Shields of David.

Throughout his life, David wrote articulately and personally. He was the author of a confessional article in the Huffington Post last year, detailing his repeated sexual abuse as a child from age eight to eleven in the Detroit Jewish community. Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote:

“Unable to disclose his mortifying secret, the boy can only fantasize revenge on those vile men whose twisted lustful current raged through their veins. He couldn't escape their eager clutch or their intimidating remarks. The boy was told to be silent. He was always told to be silent. They told him it was immodest to speak up or draw attention to oneself. But what did they know about modesty?

“The boy sits silently in seclusion, sweating as waves of fury and nausea wash over him. He feels paralyzed as the repulsive images of his molestation, rape and sexual manipulation replay over and over in his young mind bringing along fresh doses of shame and horror. He dreams of an escape from his Hell … As much as he tried, he could not ignore the scattered scars that sexual abuse left on his Soul.”

Silence here was the veil pulled over unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty against a child who needed an advocate to cry out for him and ease his suffering. And here, the rabbinic community failed David when, eight years later, he sought to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“With a breath of authority -- and without any investigation -- one leader in Detroit's rabbinical court exclaimed that the accusations were "My word vs. The perpetrators' word" and that there was nothing that he was going to do about it. In a further attempt to muffle my cries, he took out a large volume of the Talmud and encouraged me to read the words in a pathetic attempt to comfort my pain and revitalize my Spirit. Simply studying the Bible and its commentaries did nothing to help me or the other victims in the community. I still feel betrayed by their lack of sympathy and action.”

The rabbinical court failed in its silence. It had a responsibility to investigate David’s claim and could have found corroboration by seeking out and speaking to other victims, as pedophilia is almost always serial.

One reason why rabbis – perhaps here, but definitely also elsewhere – fail to protect the children under their auspices is a misguided application of the halakhic principle “moser,” informing on another Jew to non-Jewish authorities. There are also substantial financial liability issues for a community, which, while mitigating in some halakhic cases, are totally inappropriate when the result is to protect and further enable those who abuse children.

David did take action himself in the last two years of his life by initiating lawsuits against the perpetrators and volunteering at an Israeli NGO, counseling victims of abuse and their families.

Silence, halakha guides us, can be used for constructive and restorative purposes, depending on the circumstances. For example, silence can be effective in allowing the wife of a Kohen (priest) who has been raped to remain with her husband. Additionally, as we have seen in cases of suicide, even though we may attribute suicide to mental illness, silence enables a presumption of a cause, other than self-infliction, which permits, without question, normal burial and mourning.

In light of the relative lack of media attention to Gordon’s death, I need to turn the test of silence on myself. I do believe the importance of telling David’s story and its halakhic implications allows breaking silence. If in writing this article, I am causing pain or anguish to the family, I ask forgiveness. May all of us think compassionately and choose wisely in determining why and when to be silent or speak out. And may David Menachem Gordon’s memory be for a blessing.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.

David GordonCredit: Israel Police
A screenshot of the website LiveStream showing a video of David Menachem Gordon's funeral.

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