Judaism as a Serum to the Mental Health Epidemic
I consider myself fortunate to have experienced a rich and diverse upbringing surrounded by a loving multi-ethnic Israeli family. Leading up to my Bat Mitzvah, my early years were immersed in a variety of Jewish pools ranging from the secular to the religious. The years that followed, however, brought a sense of ambivalence towards my Judaism as my academic environment diversified and the typical brand of teenage anxiety set it. My Jewish faith and identity merely hovered above me and at times, drifted away.
Somehow, that nomadic period ended abruptly as I entered college. The new, intense setting prompted my search for community and social connection as I dealt with mounting stress and personal challenges. Reaching for my Judaism and bringing it close became transformative to my sense of self and mental well-being. It has become a life-guiding philosophy.
Since the 1990s, the erosion of Jewish-American life has accelerated as Alan Dershowitz describes in his 1997 book, “The Vanishing American Jew”. A Pew Research Center Report titled ‘Jewish Americans in 2020,’ cites around 30 percent of Jewish adults describing themselves as “Jews of no religion” who “stand out” among all faith-based groups “for low levels of religious participation.” It’s no surprise that 91 percent of them deem religion “unimportant.”
Meanwhile, a mental health epidemic has overwhelmed American society. One in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, and Jews are no exception. A high demand for therapy has made treatments increasingly scarce; untreated mental illnesses are prone to exacerbate into substance abuse, disability, and most tragically, suicide. While professional intervention is often necessary in such situations, American Jews have failed to realize that a first-aid kit lies at their fingertips: Judaism can serve as a sort of antidote that combines introspection, critical thinking, value-based decision making, and spiritual [mental] healing.
I recently attended a shiur led by the author of The Four Elements of an Empowered Life, Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum, at Mesorah DC, a Washington based Jewish organization. He focused on the meaning behind the Hebrew word for faith, emunah, as rooted in the word oman—or artisan. Hence, etymologically, the Jewish faith encourages its followers to embody an artisan-like role, sculpting their understanding and practice of Jewish beliefs, ethics, and values. The oman’s diligence is not only emblematic of authentic faith, but yields practical mental health benefits.
Many secular American Jews are not exposed to a strong Jewish upbringing, depriving them from some important life-guiding elements and a solid sense of purpose. Many regard Judaism as a divine abstraction with no relevance to their day-to-day lives. It’s no wonder that many contemporary American Jews lean toward agnosticism and atheism.
These self-described “Jews of no religion” and other Jews not particularly drawn to religion may be missing out on the benefits of a Jewish-driven consciousness. A mindset rooted in Jewish philosophy can facilitate a sense of spirituality that is conducive to good mental health. This, however, calls for a shift in one’s approach to Judaism from meaningless ritual to a means of mental self-help.
My mom, Lea Wolf, a secular Israeli and certified life-coach, can be said to personify this paradigm shift. At 23, she abandoned a toxic marriage and experienced a dire identity crisis. To free herself from anxiety and rebuild her sense of self, Wolf sought Tikkun Atzmi—a repair of the self. She describes how reflecting upon biblical lessons from her childhood—those contained in Torah stories and endless debates in the Mishnah—infused her with “mindfulness, morals, and tenacity.”
“Anxiety stems from uncertainty and deep care. In an anxious world that thrives on instant gratification, the Torah teaches patience and determination. That leads to resilience,” Wolf said. “The bible gives great examples of human failures, struggles, and successes that lead to an understanding of right from wrong and taking responsibility. Personal responsibility is how people grow [mentally] stronger.”
Wolf’s introspection through a biblical lens propelled her to craft her life philosophy: “Be true, know thyself, set your purpose.” The harmony of these premises carries the recent book, My Mother’s Mirror: A Generational Journey of Purpose, Resilience, and Self-Discovery, a self-help narrative that details her life story and the tools she used to transform her obstacles into opportunities for personal growth. Today, her journey through Tikkun Atzmi has evolved into Tikkun Olam—the repair of oneself to subsequently repair the world. Her aim is to help others using the tools she developed through personal experience.
Mental ailments such as anxiety and depression are often caused by cognitive dissonance, the misalignment between beliefs, feelings, and actions. The Tikkun Atzmi process summons a person to discover the behaviors that stray from one’s values, thus curbing dissonance tendencies. The process involves dissecting one’s feelings in the aftermath of events or actions to determine which behaviors to accept, reject, or change. This becomes not only a lesson in humility and compassion, but a guide to virtuous living.
The shift from Tikkun Atzmi to the broader Tikkun Olam further bolsters mental health by solidifying one’s beliefs and ethics through positively affirming actions, like mitzvot—good deeds. The ritual of Teshuva on Yom Kippur is one example: Jews engage in self-reflection and repair as they enter the new year with a fresh commitment to divine Commandments. It serves as a renewed pledge to improve upon one’s relationship with oneself, others, the community, and God. Unlike many traditional New Year’s resolutions that prove elusive or often go unfulfilled, the weekly ritual of Shabbat coupled with the annual chagim remind Jews that the reflect-repair-renew cycle is not a once-a-year performance check, but an ongoing process.
“Shabbat provides us the opportunity to disconnect and reconnect with ourselves, […] everything really, and gives us the space to re-calibrate and get in touch with what really matters for the week to come,” said Batsheva Paul, Director of Programming at the DC branch of MEOR, a Jewish educational outreach program. “Getting back in touch with ourselves is a big aspect of de-stressing and helps cultivate a culture of mindfulness.”
While my skepticism in the belief of a celestial Almighty may qualify me as a “Jew of no religion,” I’ve managed to connect with my Judaism by following in my mother’s footsteps as the artisan of my own faith. I see God in ethics, principles, and values that serve as a virtuous compass as opposed to a source of faith alone.
My search for God has motivated me to engage in Torah study among other Judaic topics. While I don’t ascribe to a religious lifestyle, I’ve experienced a spiritual renaissance by joining a variety of Jewish groups, attending Shabbat dinners, celebrating the chagim, and engaging actively in Israel advocacy. My connection to community paired with deep personal introspection have been pivotal in the realignment of my well-being.
“Even God makes mistakes,” Wolf said. “That’s why we need to define God before we talk about God.” She shared the story of Babel that led to the flood in the story of Noah’s Ark, whereby God destroyed a population of indiscriminate sinners. In the years following the flood, God realized that his destruction emerged from a flare of emotions that led him to act compulsively. From then on, God pledged to create a rainbow in moments of anger as a warning against hubristic or brash temptations.
Wolf explained that after her divorce, the account of Babel was instrumental to her “reconnection with God.” She came to understand that, like humans, God errs. Mistakes are inevitable. One must not strive for perfection but must instead assume responsibility and learn from each mistake.
“Emotions are tools to understand oneself,” said Wolf. She learned to channel anxiety and passionate feelings in a constructive direction as opposed to a destructive one, acting assertively and responsibly as did God.
Wolf’s interpretation of Babel is just one example of how these powerful biblical stories can foster Tikkun Atzmi. Finding strength in vulnerability and vice versa is a universal lesson in mental sensibility and character development that inspires one’s quest to help others.
The redemption of piety lies in an unorthodox approach. An approach to God in a more practical or philosophical sense can inspire commitment to self-repair, not unlike one’s personal covenant made with the Almighty. This covenant to oneself goes a long way—establishing a firm sense of identity and spirituality in a community of shared ethics and values.
“Engaging in the biblical stories from my childhood enabled me to build character,” said Wolf. “When you act in a godly manner, you act with the commandments and commitments of God to repair oneself and the world around you. That’s Israel—be like God, morally upright and strong.”