Several weeks ago, I attended a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass. I listened to the recitation of the Misheberach prayer, when the congregation asks God for healing of the community’s sick. As a frequent attendee of services, I normally rush through this prayer without thinking much about its meaning. But at Beth El I heard an interpretation of it that would challenge me to think from a Jewish perspective about an issue I never associated with religion.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, standing before a 200-person congregation on a windy Saturday morning, mentioned that the need for healing reflected in this prayer applies to “illnesses to which a stigma is attached.” The rabbi went on to discuss the need for Jewish communities to respect and support their members who struggle with mental health issues.
People often ask me why I am so committed to raising awareness and decreasing stigma surrounding mental health disorders when, thank God, I have absolutely zero personal experience with such issues. Of the many answers I give, I say that as a Jewish young adult I feel a sense of obligation to make a difference in the world, and mental health awareness is a cause I feel compelled to pursue.
During my research internship in a psychiatric hospital this past summer, I often thought about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the beauty of the idea that I could link my Jewish faith with making a difference in the lives of others. The same thought runs through my mind whenever I write articles on mental health; post on my blog, “Squash the Stigma”; or donate money to research funds directed at finding new treatments for severe mental disorders. Why then, with all our talk about tikkun olam, has the Jewish community been blind — relative to other problems, at least — to issues related to mental health? Is mental health not legitimate enough of a cause to include in our definition of tikkun olam?
The Misheberach prayer includes the words “refuat hanefesh v’refuat haguf,” which translate to “healing of the spirit and healing of the body.” The fact that Judaism juxtaposes physical with mental health shows that the two are considered equal in importance. One who struggles with mental health may find it difficult to be a productive member of his or her community, just as one afflicted with a physical illness might.
Unfortunately, many people with mental illnesses will not reach out to their communities for support because of a fear of stigma. It is ironic that Jewish communities, which are the lifeline of support for many people, often fail to provide unconditional love and support for those suffering from mental disorders. As a modern Orthodox Jew I’ve always been taught that Jewish tradition must acknowledge and incorporate the realities of modern society. Mental illness is an unfortunate reality that should not be neglected by any denomination.
Jewish tradition bears a sympathetic and non-stigmatizing view of mental illnesses. The word “shoteh” is given to a person gripped by insanity, who does not have a sense of reality; he or she is not held accountable for his or her actions. Similarly, there are instances of mental breakdown in the Tanach (Old Testament). For example, King Saul becomes terrified by an evil spirit and needs to be comforted by David (Samuel I 16:14-23). From this incident we learn that altered consciousness or emotional anguish can strike anybody, and that we should aid in quelling our fellow Jews’ mental distress.
We must welcome and help members of the Jewish community struggling with mental illnesses, whether, when appropriate, we encourage them to seek professional help, or provide them with nonjudgemental outlets where they can be reminded that they are more than their illness. Mental illness should not be viewed in the Jewish community as taboo since mental illness can affect anyone regardless of religion, culture, or socioeconomic background.
Kindness towards one’s neighbor is an important Jewish value. It is logical to extend kindness to those around us suffering in silence. Judaism has also been a proponent of not judging or shaming a fellow Jew. That said, how can a community neglect the feelings of shame felt by Jews who are uncomfortable and stigmatized due to their illnesses?
The Jewish community has always prided itself on acceptance and compassion for society’s least fortunate and most marginalized. There is an unspoken rule that converts need to be treated no differently from people who were Jewish since birth. Likewise, widows and orphans are pitied almost automatically. It is time for those suffering from mental health issues to be given the same respect and understanding from their Jewish neighbors.