Certifiable Or Meshuga?: A Brief Perspective On Mental Illness

Up until relatively recently, the term and condition of “mental illness” has been largely taboo in modern society. Interestingly, though, we see the idea of a discussion concerning mental illness appear in Tanach on multiple occasions, specifically during the pre-first Temple Era.

There are a number of supports brought that Shaul, in fact, suffered from mental illness, and that the term “ruach ra’ah” that descended upon Shaul 1 was an innuendo for what Artscroll defines as “melancholia.” Melancholia is, according to Merriam-Webster, a “mental condition, and especially a manic-depressive condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and delusions”. Shaul originally contracted this condition when Shmuel HaNavi anointed David to be the next king. Immediately after the anointment, Shaul’s personality was marked by a “terrible feeling of a nightmare and trembling with constant visions of his severe punishment” 2. All of this came as a result of his elevated level of Divinely-inspired wisdom suddenly deserting him, and instead resting on David, thus leaving him with a sense of baseness. What made it even more challenging was that it all happened suddenly, and at once. It was not a gradual loss of genius, which made Shaul acutely aware of the fact that something had changed. Indeed, as his condition’s term lengthened, he wasn't just plagued with intellectual inferiority but began to spout “words of stupidity” as well 3.

After time passed since Shaul had undergone this marked change in psyche, we see that he attempted to kill David, his personal musician. Why? The posuk clearly states that Shaul was extremely jealous of David’s accomplishments in war 4. Though Shaul promises his son Yonatan that he will ensure David’s life and stop his own murderous attempts 5, when he is faced with the same opportunity to kill David, his inhibitions leave him once more and he attempts to stab David, forcing David to flee 6. How could Shaul swear in G-d’s name and then disregard it a moment later? Today, we know that this kind of cognitive dissonance is a clear symptom of mental disorder — a simple explanation for Shaul’s actions. Indeed, this sort of disorder is something that in today’s society we are accepting of and perhaps even easily pardon, but has contemporary halacha expanded to include situations of various mental illnesses?

Yes. With a deeper scientific understanding of these illnesses, not only has the secular world become more open to dealing with psychological disorders, but our Rabbis have also been able to more adequately deal with the halachic issues and ramifications that arise when confronted with them. One example of this is Rav Asher Weiss’s teshuva on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is an extremely debilitating mental illness and becomes especially poignant when it comes to being obsessive about following halacha. Rav Weiss addresses the issue and creates a situation where a bedieved becomes a l’chatchila 7, and doctors orders are to be taken very seriously, even if they may seem to go against what halacha normally dictates.

For example, a person is required to say each word of Shema clearly and with the correct pronunciation and, therefore, someone with OCD could easily take a half hour to say the first paragraph. While this intense display of kavanah may seem commendable to some, to this person’s doctor this is a step in the wrong direction. This person has officially been moved into the category of a choleh and is therefore patur from keeping this law in its ideal way. In this case, Rav Weiss requires this person to say Shema quickly, without thinking about his pronunciation as that is the only way in which he can hope to get better 8.

What is important to realize and keep in mind is that people suffering from psychological disorders are not bad people. Shaul was king of Israel; he was a tzadik! All too often, he is only remembered for his sick end while his lofty beginning is completely disregarded.

1. Shmuel 1 Chapter 16

2. Abarbanel 16:14

3. RI”D 18:10

4. Shmuel 1 18:8

5. 19:6

6. 19:9

7. Badei HaShulchan

8. Minchas Asher 2:134

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