Judaism and Mental Illness

Many instances of mental instability are recorded in the Bible and in rabbinic literature.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Among the curses threatened for faithlessness to the covenant is 'so that thou shalt be mad (meshugga) for the sake of thine eyes which thou shalt see (Deuteronomy 28:34).' King Saul was terrified by an evil spirit and David was invited to play the harp so that Saul could find relief (I Samuel 16:14-23). David feigned madness when he fled to the court of Achish the king of Gath (I Samuel 21:13-16; Psalms 31:1).

A Midrashic comment on this is that David questioned why God should have created such a purposeless state as insanity. But when he saved his life by pretending to be mad, David came to see that madness also has a purpose.

In one passage (Hosea 9:7), the prophet is described as 'mad', though it is clear from the context that this term is used ironically. Some moderns have understood the biblical record here and elsewhere to imply that a man who has received a vision from on high is bound to have had a profound disturbance of his mental equilibrium. In the Rabbinic literature madness or melancholia is often attributed to an evil spirit, ruahyaah.

It is axiomatic in Jewish law that an imbecile, shoteh in Hebrew, is held responsible for his actions neither by a human court nor by the divine judgment. But there is considerable uncertainty about the degree of mental instability required for a person to be considered a shoteh.

Trying to Define Insanity

The classical definition stated in the Talmud (Hagigah 3b) is one who goes out alone at night, stays overnight in the cemetery, and rends his garments. The Talmud discusses this further but the definition remains more than a little opaque.

silhouette of woman looking through curtainsMaimonides, in his Code (Edut, 9.9-10), after stating that a shoteh is disqualified from acting as a witness in a court of law, observes that in this context a shoteh is not only one who walks about naked or breaks vessels or throws stones but whoever is mentally disturbed.

Evidently, Maimonides understands the Talmudic definition to be in the nature of a broad, general assessment so that for practical purposes the term denotes anyone whose mind is disturbed with regard to any one matter and Maimonides proceeds to extend the scope of the law as follows: 'Those especially stupid in that they cannot note contradictions and cannot understand any matter in the way normal people do, and so, too, those who are confused and hasty in their minds and behave in an excessively crazy fashion, these are embraced by the term shoteh. This matter must depend on the assessment of the judge since it is impossible to record in writing an adequate definition of insanity.'

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.