Image: Painting of David and Saul, Franco-Flemish School, unknown Master, 19th century. Public Domain. Several characters in the Bible may have suffered from mental illness, but King Saul is one of the most dramatic depictions.
In many ways we seem to still be in the dark ages when it comes to mental illness. Treatments are far from perfect, access to treatment is often difficult, and most of all, the stigma attached to mental illness is cruel. A Washington Post article, Halloween Attractions Use Mental Illness to Scare Us, reflects a casual cruelty about mental illness that would be completely unacceptable relative to physical illnesses such as cancer or polio.
Mental illness is mentioned in the Torah. Like physical illness, it was understood to be either a misfortune or a punishment from God. It is listed among the curses in Deuteronomy 28:
Thus if you will not listen to the voice of the Eternal you God, to observe to do all God’s commandments and God’s statutes which I command you this day, all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you… (Deut 28:15)
The Eternal will strike you with madness, and blindness and astonishment of heart and you will grope at noonday as the blind grope in darkness. You will not make your ways prosperously. You will be oppressed and robbed always, and there will be none to save you. (Deut 28:28-29)
While on the surface this might be an upsetting passage, let’s look below its surface meaning for two interesting things. The first is that Deuteronomy 28 refers to boils, scabs, tuberculosis, fevers and inflammation in precisely the same way it refers to shigayon, usually translated “madness.” There is a fundamental understanding of illness as illness, whether it is physical or mental.
The second is that verses 28 and 29 offer a striking description of the ravages of mental illness. Lev in Biblical Hebrew is not just the “heart” – it is more accurately described as the seat of thought and emotion, what we moderns refer to as “mind.” I offer a paraphrase in modern English for verses 28-29:
The Eternal will strike you with mental illness, so that your mind will not work properly. You will be unsure of your perceptions, and your sleep cycles will be disrupted. You will find it hard to find employment. You will be vulnerable to criminals and exploitation, and it will be difficult to find help.
The author of Deuteronomy had a remarkable knowledge of the experience of mental illness. However you understand authorship of the book (divine dictation, divine inspiration or human authorship) it shows a striking familiarity with the phenomenon.
Today we no longer understand physical illness to be evidence of sin, and there is no reason to see mental illness in that way, either. The mentally ill are not at fault, and deserve the same compassion we give any other person afflicted with illness. Both physical and mental illness are curses upon humanity, but much of the misery they cause can be alleviated with human compassion.
What can we learn about mental illness from Torah? First, we can learn that it has always been with us. Thousands of years ago, it was not all that different than it is today. Secondly, we can learn that it is in fact the equivalent of physical illness: it threatens life and livelihood.
What has changed from Biblical times is that we are aware that we are the hands of God in this world. It is up to us to use our heads and our hearts to relieve the suffering of the afflicted, with the employment of science and the balm of compassion.