Debra Alper
Debra Alper

Passover, perfection, and liberation

With winter just behind us, and teasers of spring flinting in the air, our communal attention naturally turns to Passover. Whether it is the task of cleaning that makes you fret, or the thought of trading in your doughy, leavened goodness for more crumbly, cardboard-like fare, the countdown toward Passover tends to produce an anxiety that sets this holiday apart from the others on our calendar.

In some ways, the trepidation that accompanies the mere mention of Passover is a unifier, something that Jews of all stripes can relate to at this time of year. With mocking dread, we commiserate with one another about how much work there is to be done, and how many items on our checklist remain unchecked. But for some of us, that lighthearted tone conceals darker worries. Where some fret about how much there is to clean, others experience severe panic at the thought that every last crumb might never get scrubbed.

In my clinical practice, I see this often. Current research indicates that religious individuals are no more likely to suffer from OCD than their non-religious peers. Nonetheless, for sufferers of OCD who are religious, their symptoms often manifest themselves in matters of faith and ritual practice. According to the International OCD foundation, OCD is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages, wherein an individual gets caught in an unending cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Scrupulosity, a subtype of OCD, is diagnosed when an individual persistently obsesses over specific religious worries, and compulsively engages in religiously motivated behaviors in order to assuage those worries.

For the clinically scrupulous, Passover can be a perfect medium for one’s symptoms. Dictums to make certain that not even a single crumb of hametz remains can wreak havoc on the mind of the clinically anxious. One of the hallmarks of OCD is an intolerance of uncertainty. And yet, uncertainty is an inescapable part of life, and thereby of our religious practice as well. But so often, in our sages’ efforts to convey the seriousness of the Passover commandments, and in our own quest to fulfill every letter of the law, we connote an insistence on certainty that goes beyond what any one of us can reasonably obtain. In doing so, we inadvertently turn Passover into a ready outlet for one’s obsessive worries (am I 100% certain that I got every last drop of hametz?) and compulsive behaviors (I’d better scrub the walls in the kitchen once more, just in case).

So then, how can we tell when one’s fastidiousness crosses the line from careful to compulsive? When does one’s behavior no longer reflect an admirable level of piety, but instead suggest a clinically unhealthy fixation? With scrupulosity in particular, this line can be hard to detect and so easy to obscure. It is easy to label one’s supreme attention to detail as pious, or his unyielding commitment to perfection as praiseworthy. But OCD is diagnosed when one’s symptoms impair his or her ability to function. So too with scrupulosity, problematic behaviors are those which interfere with one’s ability to properly practice his or her religion. When one’s performance of a mitzvah is plagued by doubt, when one’s search for surety leads to only more questions, and when one’s service is grounded only in fear, and never in joy or love, something is surely amiss.

I try to show my patients that following the guidelines provided by our Torah and sages can be freeing. Do them, and the burden is lifted; your obligation is fulfilled. But while the growing trend in some communities toward greater passion in observance can be a beautiful thing, there are those for whom the glorification of stringency is a recipe for disaster. I am not a rabbi, nor do I claim to have the wisdom of our sages, past or present. But as a clinical psychologist, I cannot ignore what I see and what my religious patients, who wish only to observe with both faith and tranquility, tell me. Viewed through the lens of their worry, they are interpreting the communal value placed on precision as a call for certainty and perfection. And what they need so badly is for the high value we place on surety to be tempered with the acknowledgement that absolute certainty is absolutely impossible. That while God has given us an invaluable blueprint, and sages to guide us in our adherence to it, we are but mere mortals and can only be judged as such — both by ourselves and the Almighty.

This year, let us approach the Passover season with care and balance. And may we all experience liberation from whatever keeps each of us confined.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
Debra Alper, PhD is a licensed Clinical Psychologist on staff at the Yeshiva University Counseling Center. She is also the founder of Kadima Psychotherapy, a private psychotherapy practice specializing in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. Dr. Alper has delivered educational workshops to a variety of community and professional audiences, and is committed to the dissemination of evidence based treatments.
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