Mental Illness in the Torah

Some characters from tales in the bible have been seen interpreted as having been mentally ill, which I find interesting. I will review a few of these stories, since maybe not for everyone but personally I am always interested at how mental illness was shown, interpreted, treated, etc in times before it was understood that it was more psychological than the invasion of evil spirits and the such. Therefore this will be more of an informational post than an advice or opinionated one. 

King Saul, the first king of Israel, has a lot of evidence in his behavior that points to him having bipolar disorder. During his depressive episodes “David took the lyre and played it in his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better and the evil spirit would depart from him” (1 Samuel 16:23). The sound of the lyre soothed him, as music may for some people tend to serve as a welcome distraction for the flood of utter negativity and despair that occurs during any particularly strong episode. (Disclaimer that I’m exclusively unipolar in my depression so I do not know if depressive episodes in bipolar are the same as those in major depressive disorder.) There are also times where it seemed he was having a manic episode. He ended up coming across a group of prophets in the forest, and “fell into a prophetic frenzy along with them.” It was rumored for a while whether Saul was among the prophets as well. This happened again when he was chasing David towards Naioth, and “the spirit of God came upon him…  he too fell into a frenzy before Samuel” (Samuel 19:23-24). These two written occurrences of mania were noted to be out of character for Saul. Later in his life after this he is consistently paranoid until he ends up committing suicide “following defeat by the Philistines.” This cycle of the “evil spirit,” when he was sad and withdrawn, and the “spirit of God,” where he joined the prophets in frenzy when he had sudden energy and intensity in his plans. 

This is, unfortunately and admittedly, the only well-documented sign I can find of a biblical character openly expressing traits of mental illness, surely there are plenty of people who “go out alone at night, sleep in the graveyard and lose their clothing.” (Though this really only covers the criteria of a shoteh as possibly stated before and not, like above, any very clear signs of a distinct mental illness, so that is perhaps why there is not much writing about other specific occurrences.) 

One interesting thing I found is that there is a word apart from shoteh to describe some with mental states that vary from the neurotypical norm, which is peti. Unlike the shoteh, the peti is still obligated, though as quoted are “simple and have a childlike level of understanding” (x). And so such is understood to be when one functions in the world but does not have an understanding that matches their physical age, or may be confused about what age they are despite having a job and other responsibilities that may match being an adult. It generally matches anyone who does not know how to answer when asked how old they are, it seems. This is in particular interest that it is a known phenomenon old enough to have a specific word for it, and so even in Judaism, age-sliders and those younger than the body have a specific word for themselves. 

As usual this went off topic but I hope you enjoyed learning all of this as much as I did!

Rabbis, Reading Minds Since the Days of Old

Alright. I’ll admit that title is a joke. But I’m in that sort of mood. Today’s topic is about how rabbis can decide how lucid one is and how certain laws that one may be deemed as not having enough control of their mind to be able to choose for themself about things. It just seems off that a religious man can look at someone and say “You can’t divorce them, I don’t care if you want another partner, to get married again, or just want to get away from them, they’re clearly so muddled that they won’t actually realize that you’ve divorced them and still think you’re married, so it’ll end up breaking the law.” An actual example. Like many things, it irks me. 

Even in less life-changing matters, it is relevant today, when the Haredi community was arguing against having an egalitarian section at the Western Wall. Interestingly enough, it is towards another rabbi, the then 103 years old Rabbi Shteinman. It was brought into question whether he was able to make decisions properly in a very hesitant, roundabout way-  “Maybe they are at the type of age…” “ I don’t know if they are today in a situation that is appropriate… “ “Not in a position that he can really decide on fine and difficult issues…” and the such. This is due to the amount of power a rabbi has, and if suspected as not being lucid, that power is essentially stripped from them due to them no longer being trusted on their input in conversations and decisions. (Of course, he was met with anger, due to him likely making these statements in hope to gain support during the elections for the next chief rabbi. Other reports mentioned Shteinman as being perfectly coherent and able to sit through long, complex meetings to offer detailed responses.) But nonetheless, one can see the weight of such words against someone. 

I’ve frankly always found this a bit odd, disconcerting, worrisome of sorts. First of all, how can an external person properly judge how well one’s brain functions in decision-making, or in understanding the reality of a situation? Especially in olden times, when a woman being upset about something was considered hysteria, the long-ago and sexist version of BPD, essentially. How does one judge lucidity? What is the scale? Can a rabbi’s decree of such not be easily manipulated by what they think and want, rather than what even they feel is the reality? Though another thing I read, really, was that “to keep the peace” one would let a person who is not lucid steal from others. And if anything, this lucidity seems to not only encompass visible mental illness or behaviors that others cannot understand but also one considered to be an imbecile. One can see how the ruling can be a bit flawed here. 

Sorry for the scrambled entry, lack of true conclusion and point, and any of the other major flaws that pickle this post. What do you know, we’re affected generally by what we write about. I couldn’t find that much on this, truthfully, but thought it was important to bring up in the first place as a question. 

Delusions and Religion

In the discussion of delusions, it’s not rare to hear delusions of grandeur be mentioned. Among this subtype are various specified beliefs it would take far too long to try and cover them all, since everyone’s delusions are, in a way, highly personalized. However, the one we will specifically cover here is the religious delusion section of these, and the connection in reactions to it between modern times and biblical times, to name two opposites, though I speak from a perspective of using the American reaction to it in general perceived society, as other cultures and religions may have reasonably different reactions. 

In olden days, prophets seemed quite numerous. Or, if not that common, were at least revered and seen as holy beings when they did exist, or just those with the capacity to speak to such beings. Their words, prophecies, and communication with the divine were believed and served as the foundations for many traditions and parts of religion that were either created from scratch or added onto an already formed system of beliefs. 

Let’s look at Elijah’s story as an example. A prophet who spoke to God, and one we even welcome to each of our seders, had many things happen to him that God said would. It is interesting that he even combated so-called “false prophets” in order to prove that his God was the most powerful one compared to Baal, another deity. He was a Jew who was a prophet for an already existing religion, one type. Either way, not quite accepted by the people for being a prophet, but having strong belief in being able to prove it, and in society prophets seemed to be accepted as a valid being. (Maybe not this one. But that’s probably because he’s the Jewish God’s prophet.)

A very interesting part of the story I found is that when he was hiding away from the current queen of Israel, Queen Jezebel, God sent ravens to feed him bread and meat from the King’s table. From my observation in the community, ravens and crows have always had a strong connection to the mentally ill, being seen as friends, messengers, guides, and other mainly-positive connections. This makes me curious as well why ravens were chosen by God to send the bread and meat, because I feel like ravens were painted in a negative light before when Noah sent one to scour the surroundings and it never returned, unlike the dove. So doves with olive branches became seen as a sign of light, life, and peace, while ravens and crows maintained their charcoal feathers and reputation of death and filth. (Much as I dislike to see them characterized as this.) 

This is already turning into a tangent, but I’ll try to finish this with some sort of point. Nowadays, when prophets turn up, most dismiss them as delusional and to be ignored. But why should, then, the old word be listened to, and not that of this time? Is it aligned with a possible belief of God not speaking verbally with humans anymore, preferring to stand aside? But many still believe God can hear their prayers, so why could there not be prayers who speak to gods, and angels inhabiting human bodies to learn the ways of humans and report to God about their behaviors? I see a lot of preaching of “open-mindedness; as long as their opinions and beliefs coincide with yours” happen as a whole. Well, not with the added part, but it seems that people are perfectly willing to accept things that they aren’t… until it passes their threshold of “appropriately odd,” and then it’s “those delusional people need help.” 

I mean. Of course when something ends up interfering negatively with one’s interpersonal and societal functioning a bit of effort should be made to try and get things under control. (Though of course I understand the whole “heck them, why the hell should I have to follow their rules, they just want to change me and hurt me” mentality. And often inability to realize when something is functionally impairing me. We all understand this, and I definitely know how hard it is to break out of it. [Still haven’t with some things. Oops I guess!] So I guess I’m a bit of a hypocrite in saying this. But um. People say it’s important.) But in general I think more acceptance should be given to beliefs that may seem odd to people but are very important to the people who hold them. (They often end up being a coping mechanism anyways.) Why not let people keep their harmless to others beliefs as a way to keep a solid identity and comfort for themselves without mocking them?

- Rin

Welcoming of the Guest: Oh No

It has long been regarded a mitzvah in Judaism to welcome people into your house, especially those with nowhere else to go. Overall helping others by sacrificing something, whether it be your time, money, or space. Of course, this held more meaning in the past when everyone was nomadic and not finding a place to sleep at night was a matter of life and death. However, one has to wonder; did these people not worry about the guests they were inviting to stay with them? Such a naive willingness to trust everyone around you, especially strangers who wish to share your food and shelter, could end up badly hurting you, especially if they intend to stab you and leave you to die while taking over your household. 

One example where this extreme focus on acceptance of strangers is prominent is when Abraham, sitting in his tent in the woods and recovering from slicing off his own flesh for the covenant, which must have cost him extreme pain, tends to the strangers immediately. Standing up, going into the hot sun alone to meet three likely intimidating people, while being in intense pain… well, this guy is one of God’s chosen alright. Even not knowing these were angels, he bows down in the sand at their feet and offers them extravagant food and shelter before they go on to continue their journey. He is even now seen as a model for the entire virtue of welcoming the guest and treating them with generosity. 

I have noticed, from the words of those around me, that it is often looked down upon to doubt and question the intentions of others. Straying a little from the topic, but giving money to those who beg for it, for example; certainly, they may use the money they have received for food, hygiene, medicine, or temporary shelter. But often, it is used to further endorse their self-destructive behaviors. If I hesitantly bring up this possibility, it is met often with a cold eye or confusion or how I could be so suspicious of another human, one appearing to be in need. Overall, in Judaism, I have noticed a large focus on trust, selflessness, acceptance, community, compassion, and giving. Sometimes, when you involve a mental illness in the mix, this can get a little tricky to observe and fit yourself within the community. 

With anxiety, one’s self-preservation senses are on overdrive almost always, with constant adrenaline rushes that scream to you that you are always in danger, no matter what is happening around you or what you may be doing. When it comes to this, the thought of passing past people on the street may make you ill and shaky; what if they hurt you? What if they try to talk to you when you’re not prepared with a response? What if they ask something from you and you can’t and won’t give it? What if they attack in retaliation? With thoughts like this swarming your mind even around friends and family, there isn’t time to think about how much the other may be struggling, because your mind is almost absolutely focused inward, with hyperawareness directed at your environment. 

Another trouble may be the existence of the importance placed on constant empathy towards other humans as well. I have always had trouble with this. Once, in morning t’fillah, I even posed this question; What do you think is more important, empathy or sympathy? Unsurprisingly, every single person answered empathy, with the additional few comments of “Uh, empathy of course, not having it would make me a psychopath, so.” Now, I have a quite many qualms about these comments, the least of all being that having a lack of empathy does not magically win you all the symptoms of what I suppose they intend to mean Conduct Disorder or AsPD. But in any case, the ability to tap in on other person’s emotions and feel them as they do has always been a curious phenomenon I have wondered about, as in why there is so much societal, religious, or communal importance placed on such. Does being overcome with someone else’s emotions so you can suffer with them really do anything except burden you with unnecessary emotions? There are some who are even paralyzed by others’ emotions and left unable to deal with the wave of negativity they have absorbed. An argument I have heard is that empathy spurs action, and that feeling the other’s emotions may make you more inclined to help the person. However, people with no empathy are not heartless. They may still have a desire to help their friends out of an understanding that it is likely a positive thing for their friend to be smiling, and therefore it is something that is good for the both of them. Emotion does not always trump logic. 

Overall, I think that there is an extreme pressure in the community to feel the emotions and needs of others and put them above yourself, despite one still often have a driving feeling of required self-preservation not always aligned with one’s will. This can cause a problem for the less emotionally-inclined members of the communities who may feel awkwardly left out in these conversations about endless compassion and loving the stranger, because we once were the stranger, and yet, why does that incline us to help others who are strangers in their land without knowing their true intentions, whatever they may be?

- Rin


Oh, dear, oh dear. I didn’t mean to frighten or worry any of you by the lapse in post times, since I suppose it implies the worst for myself and .. the one I had brought along on this trip. I’ve only good news, really.

We were able to recover what we needed without incident! All that’s left is to, well, confront “Ebb”. We’ll leave this task to morning light, as this whole process has been rather draining.

The only thing that worries my other friend and I would be the amount of progress she has made withing the corrupted flow. The program –Really, any machine can’t handle being run constantly with such demand and yet still perform beautifully, if beautiful was ever a way to describe a corrupted program.

My darling! We’ll be on our way to you soon. Our arms are always open for you. It’s never too late to change. I love you!

I’m not alone to help. For now, I’ll retrieve what you were searching for on my own. Consider these little love notes I’d slip into your locker. You were robbed from ever having such a luxury.

That’s why I’m leaving this for all to see.

I don’t have any fears; you don’t scare me. You are terrified of hurting me and hurting her, but you know where both of us are going.

If you’re truly at a lack of control to hound the two others that invaded your mind, you’d be trying to kill us when we arrive.

You are stronger than you believe, even if you are outnumbered by rust. That’s why I admire you so.

We’re nearly there. We’ll be there in a few hours, okay? Come and kill us if you really mean to.
But I know you’re too busy in the backflow.

I’ll help you purge yourself of all the ugly rusted things that ache your soul. I’ll let you keep the rusted parts that you use to protect yourself. And I will be there for you while suffering the cleansing. I love you, honestly and truly.

That’s why I’m going to find what you couldn’t.