The Jewish Theological Seminary and Drisha Institute hosted a class in May for rabbis and mental health professionals on the topic of mental health and Torah.
It was an amazing experience to study ancient texts on themes of disability and despair from generations long ago. We read how Rabbi Nachman transformed despair into joy. We looked at stories of family dysfunction like Joseph and his brothers fighting. And we saw how community and compassion lift people up in tough times.
Before diving into the texts, let us examine the context. Mental health is often discussed in clinical terms with diagnosis, medications, stress levels, safety plans, and accessing resources. Indeed these points must be addressed by families, individuals, clinicians, and communities during acute stages. Then the long-term healing ideally involves the building of robust support systems with an array of exercise, the arts, music, meditation and prayer, establishing routines, boundaries, and healthy friendships. This recipe strengthens the lives of individuals and society. Studying texts about despair does not replace the clinical essentials. Torah learning and clinical treatment compliment one another.
In our first text, Rabbi Nachman examines joy and despair (in Lekutei Moharan Part II Torah 23:1). The text starts with people dancing at a wedding, with sheer happiness experienced at a simcha. The question emerges—when you see someone outside of communal joy, do you pull them in? Often it is a good idea to help elevate others. Though it can be detrimental. When do we encourage, and when do we call for help? Social work ethics says if someone is in danger to themselves or others, you call a hotline, a doctor, 911. Jewish law pikuach nefesh also says if it is a matter of life or death, you initiate action to help save a life. Even when help is rejected.
A certain paradox exists, suggests Reb Nachman. Gloom and joy appear as opposites, yet they are inter-connected and dance around one another. The supposed opposites help to define each other, and part of our job as humans is to learn to hold both, like smashing glass at a wedding.
The next text describes a three-part story. First, Rabbi Hiyya Abba is sick, and Rabbi Yohanan helps him. Second, Rabbi Yohanan is sick, and Rabbi Hanina helps him. Third, Rabbi Elazar is sick, and Rabbi Yohanan helps him. Their names are perhaps inconsequential but the lessons prove golden. The rabbis do not heal themselves. Each person who lies in a “dark room” receives a trusted visitor. In this text, helping someone means: go to their house when they are in despair, ask about their sickness, perhaps touch their arm gently, and listen.
The text (Berakhot 5b:10-16) also shows that the rabbis change roles. The healers become ill, and the ill become healers. Indeed shift happens, thus we have to learn to adapt and avoid narrow definitions of others because they too may change.
The text concludes by discussing mortality and how human suffering is rampant. The best we can do is to model our communities and relationships after the model of aiding others out of darkness, increase our understanding of mental health, plus employ self-care.
The mental health beit midrash was started by Dr. Devora Steinmetz in 2013. I am grateful to learn and to teach. I have facilitated workshops in shuls, schools, Rosh Chodesh, Chulent, and more. The intersection of faith and mental health is universal. Whether you are a hospital chaplain assisting patients, a loving and exhausted family member trying to navigate medical systems, or a concerned community member; understanding human behavior is relevant. The mental health beit midrash format opens the dialogue and allows us to enter the conversation through rabbinic passages beyond our own narratives and family tzurras. Beit midrash participants need not be fluent in Hebrew or Aramaic. I am not a Torah scholar; I read the texts in the English translation. Participants mainly need a willingness to read, think, express, and listen with compassion. The learning must occur in a balanced manner that rejects stigmatizing and extremism. Sacred study can begin with just a few people who are ready to explore how Jewish texts focused on despair yield insight into our lives and our tradition.