Mental Illness in Halacha and Rav Asher Weiss on OCD

Reading the teshuvot of Rav Asher Weiss is amazingly thrilling and comforting. The breadth of his knowledge, the strength of his arguments, his common sense, and his deep sensitivity shine through, making it clear that our generation has at least one amazing posek who will help us navigate the halachic issues that arise for many years to come. I spent a recent shiur (here) analyzing his teshuva in the second volume (#134) written to a Talmid Chacham with OCD. I used this shiur to explore how Halacha has come to recognize mental illness.

Classically, Halacha only recognized mental illness is very limited circumstances. For example, when psychological issues affected one’s physical well-being, we allowed breaking Shabbat to calm them down. This is the basis for all the things we are allowed to do for a woman giving birth to bring her yishuv hadaat. Similarly, Halacha has a category of shoteh, of someone who is simply not culpable because they are deemed legally insane. However, it is hard to find indications of poskim dealing with mental illnesses per se.

Yet, especially in the Charedi world, one sees a total acceptance of this, especially when it comes to OCD. In an amazing pamphlet called Maamar Yirah Tehorah, many Charedi poskim (the Steipler, R. Chaim Kanivesky, R. Shach, R. Elyashiv) are cited as asserting that Halacha is not meant to be kept in such a way that it drains all enjoyment from life, which is the basis for their recognition that OCD is a sickness. OCD transforms the Torah of life into torture. Often, it pushes people to sacrifice more important parts of Torah for less critical parts of it. This recognition is impressive, considering the detail oriented nature of Halacha that is often hard to distinguish from OCD (see, for example, the book Sanity and Sanctity). This conviction leads these poskim to assert that such a person suffering from OCD should not repeat words in davening, not worry too much about kavana, and if necessary, stop davening altogether until he is healed!

R. Asher Weiss, channeling this acceptance of the reality of mental illness, writes a beautiful teshuva, where he assures the questioner throughout that is merely suffering from an illness, but is a wonderful person with good intentions. He guides him pastorally and halachically through the issues. He argues that one who suffers from OCD cannot properly keep Halacha. Therefore, it is mutar for him to not keep positive mitzvot, and perhaps even violate negative mitzvoth to recover. He argues that one cannot neglect positive mitzvot because one is only obligated to give up one fifth of his wealth to do mitzvoth and the pain caused by OCD is more than that. For the second argument, he says that this is a form of “violate one Shabbat so you will be able to keep others.” He even compares this to a case of averiah lishma, where one must sacrifice some mitzvoth for the greater good.

He then argues that one need not live an abnormal life to avoid missing mitzvoth. For example, understanding that it is unreasonable for someone to never eat normally, he tells the person that there is no reason to avoid bread so he won’t have to bencth, even though saying birkat hamazon is a problem for him. A person must live like a normal human being.

Lastly, one must always remember that psak is as much about practical advice as it is about law. In order to help him recover without forcing others to suffer, he encourages him to not be ashamed to have his wife or guests make Kiddush so that he does not have to do so, when it is hard to say it without repeating. He assures him that this is no different they any physical disease, where one would not feel stigmatized to ask others to help. It is not shameful for someone with the flu to refrain from touching the Challah, and it should be acceptable to ask for help here as well.

I encourage everyone to read this teshuva for its legal arguments and amazing expressions of humanity. Again, what is so striking in both this piece and Maamar Yirah Tehorah is that poskim came to recognize mental illness primarily because of their conviction that keeping Halacha is meant to be something that comforts and inspires, and not something that tortures. As the latter notes, Lo Nitnah Torah LeMalachei HaSharet – the Torah was given to human beings and expects them to be able live like people. Anything that prevents that must be cured – even when it comes with Halachic costs.

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4 thoughts on “Mental Illness in Halacha and Rav Asher Weiss on OCD

  1. Fascinating post! I could talk about this subject for hours, but instead I’ll just post a link. I think you’ll like this. I originally found this in the “Jewish press” and found published here as well. I don’t claim to know much, but this topic is “right up my alley”. If you have any questions, please ask! Believe it or not, I know people far more knowledgeable on this subject matter than me. I don’t know him, but the most knowledgeable person on this subject matter is Rabbi Dr. Twersky. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. If not, google him. I look forward to more wonderful posts!

    http://www.vosizneias.com/29011/2009/03/17/new-york-jewish-rituals-and-obsessive-compulsive-disorder/

    1. First of all, I love this site. Yiyashar Kochacha.

      I am the author of the article in that link and if you want to discuss it further, I’d be more than happy to discuss. I’ve written more extensive ones and discussed it more recently with more updated details and many of those talks can be found at YUTORAH and on my website (www.njanxietyrelief.com)
      I want to reference rabbi Ziring to the steipler’s letters to Dr. Greenwald “Eitzos V’Hadrachos” as it realy offers an exciting outlook on how to answer a Shayla when the answer itself opens the person up to further question.

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