Mental Illness in the Torah

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.

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

10 thoughts on “Mental Illness in the Torah”

  1. It is good that the community at large is getting better at recognizing mental illness as equal to physical illness. Yet, the compassion and assistance for the caregiver(s) for those living with mentally ill family members has not improved at the same level. Love and understanding are so helpful to the mentally ill patient and even more to the caregiver since the challenge for that person is so minimally defined by medicine and society. Often comments such as, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” or, “Wouldn’t s/he be better off in an institution?” are not only hurtful but demeaning. The devaluation of the caregiver and the ill is dehumanizing at best. Seems to me (in my opinion) a sin, and didn’t we just ask for forgiveness?

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    1. I agree, Sheila, appreciation for the caregivers and families is one area for growth, and one where synagogues could show leadership.

      Thank you so much for raising that point!

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  2. When my world collapsed in 2006 I was diagnosed with PTSD. Lost everything and lived on the streets for six years. Friendships were lost and never regained. A beautiful thought “we are the hands of God in this world..” is now in my mind. Rabbi Ruth you are a beautiful person. Shalom

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    1. Dennis, I am so glad you are no longer living on the streets. That must have been an horrible experience for you. Like you my husband also suffers from PTSD, and it is a one day at a time to heal process and not easy at that. I hope you now have a community of support and love that gives you strength each day to proceed. Your belief in G-d is not only as you put it, a “beautiful thought,” but saving grace to you. I wish you continued healing.

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      1. It is difficult to focus most days. Without me realizing it the people who turned away from me left a vacum in my life. Isn’t life strange the way we are guided to people who are honest and caring. You were on the path and reached me with written words.

        “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart”. Anne Frank

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        1. I love those words of Anne Frank.

          Dennis, I wish you a refuah shleimah, a complete healing. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but with progress you can see over time towards a future of hope.

          I have had PTSD myself – events long ago that now mostly remain in the past (except when they don’t.) It can improve. I wish that for you.

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