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What does Torah teach about depression?

In light of recent events that highlight those who face mental health challenges, we may be wondering if there is a "Jewish spin" to this tragedy.

In light of recent events that highlight those who face mental health challenges, we may be wondering if there is a "Jewish spin" to this tragedy. What does the Torah teach us about sadness and depression?

One could begin by asking:  Must faith come from a "down" feeling?  Is Judaism supposed to be a depressing and negative religion, making us feel guilty?  Here are three sources that teach us Judaism's approach:

  1. Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (Spain, 1200-1263):  "Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world nevertheless one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly."
  2. Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Spain, 1075-1141) in the Kuzari: "It is not in accordance with the spirit of the Torah to worry and feel anguish throughout one's life; one who does so transgresses the Almighty's commandment to be content with what he has been given, as it says you shall rejoice with every good thing which the Lord your God has given you (Deut. 26:11)."
  3. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (Germany, 1808-1888) cites a Talmudic objection to depression: "Judaism never considered pain, sorrow, self-affliction, or sadness to be valid goals. The opposite is true; one should pursue happiness, bliss, cheer, joy, and delight. For the Shechina (Divine Presence) does not dwell in a place of sadness; it dwells only in a place where happiness reigns." 

Clearly, Judaism does not see sorrow and spiritual suffering as a desired state. But sometimes it happens, going back to Biblical times. In I Samuel chapter 16, King Saul felt depressed when the spirit of God departed from him. Saul called David (future son in law, and eventual successor as King) to play music to help restore his spirit and dispel his sadness. 

Ethics of the Fathers (4:1) teaches, "Who is wealthy? One who is content with their own portion."   This indicates that, according to Judaism, learning to be happy with what we have, finding meaning in life can be helpful. Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, one of the great Chasidic masters, taught, "It is a great mitzvah to be in happiness (b'simcha) and to overcome and reject feelings of sorrow and melancholy."

Some scholars (see, for example, Professor Arthur Green's book, Tormented Master suggest that Reb Nachman was a very depressed person. Note that his dictum did not teach that it was a mitzvah to be happy (sameach) but to be in happiness, a happy environment, happy behavior.  Further, Israela Meyerstein (in the winter 2004 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health) has suggested that ritual, prayer, music, and a like-minded supportive group can be extremely beneficial in such circumstances. 

In Judaism, it is a mitzvah to treat illness and take care of ourselves.  "And you shall greatly guard your lives," (Deuteronomy 4:15) is a commandment of the Torah.  Thus, it is a mitzvah to go to the doctor to attend to ailments.  This is not only true of physical illness, but also of mental illness. Unfortunately, programs to help those with mental illness are often the first to be cut when funding (government or otherwise) is short. But we do ourselves no favors when making such cuts.

Serious depression and mental illness are not moral failures. They should not be stigmatized.  These are illnesses and can be dangerous if not treated.  Seeking out a skilled clinician such as those at Jewish Child & Family Services can truly be life-saving. 

Rabbi Dr. Joseph S. Ozarowski, BCC, is Rabbinic Counselor and Chaplain at Jewish Child & Family Services, and author of To Walk in God's Ways:  Jewish Pastoral Perspectives on Illness and Bereavement.

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