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Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig: Breaking New Ground in Halacha and Mental Health

Credit: Amudim

Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig is the spiritual leader of Beit Knesset Netzach Menashe in Beit Shemesh, Israel, and has always been known as an extremely accessible rabbi who is willing to discuss all halachic matters with congregants and non-congregants alike.

Today he fields dozens of halachic questions each month, most of which relate to mental health issues – a subject about which he has become an expert.

Several years ago, after realizing that halacha only addressed today’s mental health issues in a very limited way, Rabbi Rosensweig began studying weekly with Dr. Shmuel Harris, a psychiatrist living and working in Israel, to broaden his understanding of mental health.  Rabbi Rosensweig’s main takeaway from his meetings with Harris was the nuance that is required in each and every case, in order to fully understand the situation properly.  If you don’t understand the specific case, you can’t give a proper halachic ruling.

The results of these meetings was a comprehensive 512-page volume, “Nafshi B’Sheilati: The Halachot of Mental Health,” written in Hebrew and published by Koren.  It includes answers to halachic questions about mental health from leading poskim, such as Rabbi Modechai Willig, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, among others.  The book is filled with diverse opinions from many well-known halachic decisors, which allowed Rabbi Rosensweig to gain respect and bring more attention to the subject of mental health and Jewish law.

One example of a question that Rabbi Rosensweig receives often is whether a person suffering from depression or anxiety is allowed to listen to music on Shabbat if it helps them cope with their illness?

Most people unfamiliar with the issue of depression do not understand the effect that music has on the patient.   According to Rabbi Rosensweig, there’s a lot of internal suffering that they’re trying to avoid, and they’re asking for help. If we don’t give it to them, they might use other coping mechanisms, which could be dangerous. They might start cutting themselves, or even attempt suicide.

Therefore, the manner of the halachic ruling is crucial in maintaining both the person’s religious faith and his or her mental health. Not only does the ruling have to be sensitive to the patient’s mental health needs, but also to his or her religious needs.

In the case of the person who needs to listen to music on Shabbat, Rosensweig says he will often try to issue a ruling that will preserve the questioner’s feeling that he or she is still observing Shabbat in some capacity.  For example, he might advise the person to plug in the phone before Shabbat … or create a playlist on their phones … or set the phone to play in a continuous loop … or connect to headphones so that the music won’t disturb others.  These solutions will not require the individual to press any buttons on Shabbat.

In this way, a person feels like they are still keeping Shabbat. Rabbi Rosensweig is respecting the patient’s religious boundaries, while still addressing the mental health challenges that he or she is facing.

Some of the other halachic questions answered in the volume include the following: May someone who is anorexic fast on Yom Kippur? How do you answer specific kashrut questions from someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? Are you obligated to honor your parents if they were abusive?

In addition to writing the book, Rabbi Rosensweig created an organization called Ma’aglei Nefesh – The Center for Mental Health, Community and Halacha, which is training rabbis and community leaders in mental health and Jewish law. Until now, most seminars for rabbis on mental health would feature a mental health professional, who would speak on subjects such as eating disorders or depression.  It was generally assumed that rabbis possessed the necessary halachic knowledge to answer such questions  — they just needed to be educated on the psychological issues.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              However, Rabbi Rosensweig doesn’t necessarily agree. He believes that many rabbis require training on how to rule halachically on questions of mental health. Just because you received semicha doesn’t mean you are prepared for the complexities of such halachic questions.  You need training in psychological rabbinics, too, which rabbinical schools are generally not providing.

Ma’aglei Nefesh also encourages rabbis to refer congregants suffering from psychological problems to mental health professionals, as he believes that in many cases rabbis are not equipped to offer the kind of treatment necessary to those who may approach them.

Rabbi Rosensweig is often amazed at the fact that a person suffering from mental illness can still be courageous enough to ask a halachic question. He feels that regardless of what his ruling might be, he must show a sensitivity to the fact that such a question is being asked in the first place.

One of the reasons why halacha and mental health has not been widely addressed in the past is because most rabbis are largely unfamiliar with conditions of mental health.  That’s partly because congregants are reluctant to reveal their conditions, due to the societal stigma associated with them.  The shame that’s often involved makes it difficult to ask a rabbi such questions.  Many feel that rabbis aren’t going to understand the situation, and won’t be able to issue a halachic ruling.

Fortunately, it has become more common and more acceptable to speak about mental health issues in the Orthodox community, as more attention and awareness has been directed to the subject.  As a result of this increased awareness, many are recognizing the importance of incorporating the halachic aspect of diagnosing and treating mental health issues.

Rabbi Rosensweig’s book is being translated into English, and will be available to the public later this year.  I recently had the privilege of hearing Rabbi Rosensweig speak in our community … and it was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me.  If you get a chance to hear him speak, I highly recommend it.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the founder and owner of MGF Marketing, a direct marketing consulting firm. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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