A Jewish Theology of Depression

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Atara Cohen

As a rabbinical student, I spend much of my time immersed in text. The Jewish canon fundamentally shapes the way I interact with the world, other people, and God. I search for parts of myself in the books that I love in order to understand how I should live, how I should form relationships, and how I fit into the fabric of our tradition. I am able to feel the texts speaking to me, and thus I create my own textual identity.

Many Jews endeavor to find themselves in text as I do. However, people living with depression may have particular difficulty finding a textual identity that encompasses their whole being. Many of the religious texts that most obviously address depression suggest problematic attitudes towards mental illness. The texts that might be more inclusive and helpful require some creative reading to access. This means that those whose illness encompasses much of their lives may lack a textual, spiritual framework to understand their day-to-day lives. A friend asked me, “How am I supposed to bring my whole self into a relationship with God when depression shapes my lived experience?” This is my response.

One early and obvious religious approach to depression is that of William James, a philosopher and psychologist who studied various approaches to religious experience. He addressed the problem of the religious experience of depression directly in his seminal work on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience. His approach was influential enough that it has resonance in our language today. James outlines two fundamental religious outlooks: the “healthy minded” and the “sick soul.” He argues that those who experience pain more easily than others also often experience religion differently than those who do not experience the same pain. James suggests that there is a way to “cure” the “sick soul.” He describes the following process:

To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities (James, 136).

This conversion can happen in any faith. It can be instantaneous or a long, drawn out process. However, once such a process has happened, one is able to see beyond the suffering of the world and reach an inner peace.

Although James writes from real experiences—he uses Tolstoy’s experience in A Confession as an excellent example—in most cases the notion that there can be a religious “cure” for depression or any mental illness is terribly dangerous. James lived before modern therapies and medical treatments. Although we have made so much progress in understanding mental health, there are still those that believe that if they just adopt a different attitude, they may be cured. I know many people who were resistant to medical help because they thought that they could cure themselves. I have been told that “happiness is a choice.” By suggesting today that one might be cured by having an attitude shift, people are discouraged from using the very real treatments that exist.

Thankfully, most people are no longer advised this way. At the same time, people still hold onto the problematic attitude that chronic mental health problems are something to be “cured.” Some people who experience depression may have one episode and never experience the same symptoms again. However, most people who have a major depressive episode will have one at some point in the future. Telling these people that they can rid themselves of all depressive feelings is irresponsible and harmful. If a person believes that he or she can be cured, each and every negative feeling or the inevitable next episode become not only painful experiences but also experiences of failure. Feeling like a failure for mental illness can worsen an already difficult situation.

Instead of a linear framework of the “sick soul to converted soul” or the “mentally ill to cured,” a more flexible framework of ups and downs is much more helpful. Using language such as “treatment,” “coping,” and “living with” rather than a language of trying to “solve the problem” can powerfully impact those who are depressed. While he does not use this language, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav often writes about the pain of depression in a way that recognizes the often chronic nature of the illness. Many believe that Rabbi Nahman himself suffered from some sort of mental illness. For one experiencing depression seeking his or her place in the Jewish canon, Rabbi Nahman’s work is an obvious place to look. His student Rabbi Natan writes in his name:

For the nature of man is to pull himself towards black bile and depression, as a result of the wounds and happenings of time, and every man is full of affliction. As such, he must force himself with great strength to be joyful, always (Likutei Moharan II, 24).

Unlike James, Rabbi Nahman recognizes that coping with depression is a constant struggle that is usually not “cured.” He understands personally the great effort it takes to be joyful. Rabbi Nahman also recognizes the physiological roots of depression, albeit with a dated scientific understanding. He believes that the illness stems from an excess of “black bile” which comes from the spleen. While not medically accurate, we can imagine that he would write similarly about an imbalance of serotonin in the brain. Depression is not to be “converted.” Rather, each moment is an opportunity to turn it – with great effort – into joy.

Here, however, is where Rabbi Nahman’s theory becomes dangerous. Though depression cannot be cured, it is, according to Rabbi Nahman, still “wrong.” In the same passage, Rabbi Natan writes, “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always, and to empower oneself to distance the depression and the black bile with all one’s strength.”

Even as he admits joy to be a great struggle, Rabbi Nahman identifies it as a great mitzvah. In so doing, he puts enormous pressure on those who are suffering. For Rabbi Nahman, occasional joy is not enough; one must constantly fight one’s natural inclination toward depression. This pressure and potential for guilt are unhealthy ways to live, especially for someone who has a tendency towards self-criticism. Such a way of thinking can become a positive feedback loop of self-blame: if I am not happy, then I blame myself, then I am even less happy, and then I blame myself even more.

Rabbi Nahman’s complex theology of joy is quite alive today. People often sing his words at joyous Jewish occasions, “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always,” unaware of how exclusionary this statement can be. Worse, a small number of religious authorities, even in the Modern Orthodox community, still see depression as a sin. One friend experiencing a particularly difficult episode sat through a class entirely on how the symptoms of depression were sinful and self-indulgent. I heard another rabbi call depression a “yetzer harah,” an “evil inclination.”

The approaches taken by James and Rabbi Nahman are particularly well-known, permeate the Jewish community’s understanding of mental health, and are easy to find as resources for the seeker. However, both of these approaches can easily become dangerous. At the same time, our cannon is full of texts that can provide a sense of religious belonging and a framework for how to relate to God through depression, even if they are not about mental illness. Tehilim is particularly rich. Look at Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?

How long will You hide Your face from me?

How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?

How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

Look at me, answer me, O Lord, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.

This psalm is full of the bitterness and sense of abandonment those who experience depression often feel. This text is not about depression per se, but the psalmist is expressing poignant emotional pain that resonates with many who are dealing with mental illness. This psalm, and other, similarly angry psalms, give canonical space to emotional pain.

This can be deeply meaningful to a reader experiencing depression. On one level, the reader is not alone because they see that they too can speak their pain to God. But even if they can’t believe that God is listening, and even if they do not feel that they are delivered as the psalmist does, they are not alone because these texts are canonized. Not only did the authors thousands of years ago feel as they do, but their experience has been preserved by subsequent generations for millennia.

The text I believe is most helpful for the seeker experiencing depression is Berakhot 5b. There, the gemara has just concluded that sometimes God causes suffering not only as a punishment but because of love. Like William James’ and Rabbi Nahman’s frameworks, this too is an awful pastoral move. This can prevent people from letting go of their pain and can foster a twisted relationship with God. In a beautiful move, the gemara responds to and undermines this challenging position with a series of stories. The first is the most simple:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill. Rabbi Yohanan entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you?

Rabbi Hiyya said to him: Neither this suffering nor its reward.

Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yohanan helped him rise.

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yohanan absolutely reject the traditional tannaitic belief that suffering is to be desired. We don’t have to accept our pain, even if there is a supposed reward for the pain. We can choose to receive help and be healed.

In the following story, the roles are reversed:

Rabbi Yohanan fell ill. Rabbi Hanina entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Neither this nor its reward.

Rabbi Hanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Hanina helped him rise.

Why, let Rabbi Yohanan stand himself up!

They say: A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.

This story helps us see that we have the permission to reject our suffering without Rabbi Nahman’s pressure of being commanded to be joyful. This second story adds a crucial layer: Rabbi Yohanan cannot cure himself, even though he had cured his student. Very often, we cannot cure ourselves, even if we are the ones who normally help pull others out of suffering. While James and Rabbi Nahman suggest that treating depression is a solitary religious experience, here we see the importance of seeking the help that is almost always needed.

The final iteration of the story is the longest. Here Rabbi Yoḥanan visits one of his students again:

Rabbi Eliezer fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and saw that he was lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yoḥanan exposed his arm and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. He saw that Rabbi Eliezer was crying.

The beautiful Rabbi Yoḥanan has the magical ability to glow, revealing Rabbi Eliezer crying alone in a dark room. While the story does not need to be read this way, it appears to me that Rabbi Eliezer is suffering from some sort of mental health episode because his emotional pain and illness are linked. Rabbi Yoḥanan logically asks:

Why are you crying? If you are weeping because you did not study as much Torah as you would have liked, we learned: one who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as one directs one’s heart toward Heaven.

If you are weeping because you lack sustenance and are unable to earn a livelihood, [as Rabbi Eliezer was, indeed, quite poor,] not every person merits to eat off of two tables, [one of wealth and one of Torah]. If you are crying over children [who have died], this is the bone of my tenth son.

While Rabbi Yoḥanan seems to want to help, he exemplifies terrible pastoral care. He answers for Rabbi Eliezer and does not allow him to speak. He invalidates every possible reason he can think of for why Rabbi Eliezer would cry. Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer retorts:

Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yohanan: [I cry] over this beauty [Rabbi Yohanan] that will decompose in the earth. Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep. Both cried. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Eliezer said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Eliezer gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yohanan stood him up.

Rabbi Eliezer makes a pointed comment about Rabbi Yoḥanan himself. Just like everything in this world, the beautiful Rabbi Yoḥanan will eventually become dust. To Rabbi Eliezer, the world is utterly bleak because even the most beautiful aspects of life will eventually decompose. With this, finally, Rabbi Yohanan listens and even agrees. He validates Rabbi Eliezer’s pain and cries with him. However, after some time, he helps stop the pain. He again offers the option of rejecting suffering, and Rabbi Eliezer accepts.

These stories from the Talmud are useful in several ways. They give those struggling with mental illness permission to ignore the question of theodicy in regard to their illness. We here have a model of what it means to believe that depression is neither a punishment from God nor a sign of God’s love, and therefore we can work to overcome it.

Often we are attached to our thought patterns, but these talmudic stories encourage us to reject them. We can seek help and are not expected to cure ourselves alone. Finally, the stories in Berakhot give an outline for what help can look like: an empathic presence who validates one’s pain and then helps the person suffering explore how to move past it.

When my friend first read this series of stories in the Talmud, she cried. She saw that the authors of the Talmud she loved so dearly understood her. She, emotional pain and all, were part of the tradition she revered. For the first time, she felt that God could love her as she was. Here I offered only a few of many ways she can contextualize her experience in a religious framework. I encourage others to feel comfortable finding their own.

Atara Cohen is passionate about Torah which speaks to our social, intellectual, and emotional realities.She received semikha from Yeshivat Maharat and has studied Torah in a variety of settings, including Midreshet Nishmat, Hadar, Drisha and a BA in religion at Princeton University. During rabbinical school, she focused on human rights and pastoral care through various fellowships and internships. Atara also serves as the Base MNHTN Rabbinic Field fellow, welcoming young professional Jews to engage in Jewish life. She's a novice runner, an avid knitter, and a vegetarian recipe innovator.