June 21, 2024
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Halacha and Mental Health: The Importance of Removing the Stigma

For six years now I have been answering the halachic queries of Orthodox Jews, and there is one thing that I can state beyond a shadow of a doubt: most of the work I do is not really about halacha, but rather about battling stigma.

Six years ago, I started writing my book on halacha and mental health, נפשי בשאלתי, Nafshi Beshe’elati, together with Dr. Shmuel Harris, a psychiatrist working out of Jerusalem. We sat for two years to learn together before we wrote up the first draft, me bringing my knowledge of the halachic world, and he contributing his vast professional understanding of the world of mental health.

Should a woman suffering from anorexia fast on Yom Kippur? Can a boy dealing with depression use his phone on Shabbat to help him get through the day? Can a child with autism whose impatience causes distress keep three hours between meat and milk instead of six? Does one have to respect parents who abused him in his childhood? Is it alright to speak lashon hara as part of the therapeutic process? These—and many more—are the questions we aimed at answering.

And, as stated in my first paragraph, perhaps the most startling revelation I had as we continued our work, was that while I was knee-deep in researching source material and drowning in technical questions that were posed to me from all over the world—what I was actually doing was so much more important than just providing relief to a specific instance of religious observance.

The reason for this can be put quite simply, in the following way: When I tell a man who is lying in bed with a high fever that he can violate Shabbat to go to the hospital, I am not only making a technical statement in line with the dictates of halacha. I am also making it clear to that individual that his pain is seen, that his distress is believed, that his feelings are as real to me as they are to him. He doesn’t feel invalidated, he doesn’t feel overlooked, he doesn’t feel like there isn’t room for him in the Jewish community.

However, when the same person is suffering from depression, and—much like when he had a fever—he cannot get out of bed, cannot function, cannot go about his routine, if his request for listening to music on Shabbat is met with “surely you can survive without this for 25 hours…”—how do you think it makes him feel then? Obviously, it has the opposite effect: he feels transparent, unseen, unheard, uncared for. He feels Judaism has no place for him. He feels that there is no way to properly balance his religious life and his mental wellbeing.

The upshot of all this is clear: when we talk about halacha, we are talking about stigma. When we are talking about how our community sees mental health, we are talking also about how our rabbis perceive it and respond to it, and whether they understand that their response to it must be as clear and as robust as it is to problems pertaining to one’s physical health.

Therefore, I do what I do. Ruling on cases is not just an intellectual exercise. It goes to the heart of what we all desire to see: a more accepting and understanding community for those who suffer these significant challenges.

All this was true before the war, but it is all the more true when dealing with mental health issues resulting from the war. Perhaps the most obvious of these is PTSD. It would obviously be impossible to cover this topic properly over the pages of a newspaper. However, suffice it to say that PTSD can be very invisible. Let us take, as one short example, a soldier in the IDF who comes home after losing friends in the war. He may seem extremely capable and competent. He himself might think that the war has not affected him.

But over time, something is wrong. He is expected to go back to his routine from before the war, but nothing can be quite the same. It all is as it was—and yet still very different. It is hard to explain, and therefore hard to communicate it, but the person feels like he is back—and yet not completely back. This is precisely what confuses both the person himself and his surroundings. It is what can many times stop us from noticing that anything is wrong, or the severity of it.

An Orthodox Jewish routine will suffer the same fate. For someone with PTSD, returning to that routine can be troubling and painful. Whether halachic questions plague him (the use of cannabis on Shabbat or at all, listening to music, speaking to a therapist on Shabbat, being able to go to shul at all, etc.) or whether it be more essential questions that bother him (Why did Hashem do this to me? How can I go on believing after what I have seen? etc.)—it is important for us to realize that the individual is going through an immense process, which may take years to resolve, if it is ever resolved.

All this comes back to the same point: removing the stigma around these issues, by deepening our understanding of them, can allow a person to return to the warm comfort of his community and Orthodox way of life, as he will feel understood and accepted there. But it is our job to make sure that happens.


Rav Yoni Rosensweig is a leading expert and posek on Mental Health and Halacha and is the founder of Ma’aglei Nefesh, a center in Israel that trains Jewish community leaders about mental health and halacha. He is a rabbi in Beit Shemesh and a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He can be reached at [email protected].

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