At first, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig was just looking for some answers to a few questions he was asked about Jewish law and mental health. This quickly turned into a book and then into a center he helps run and has trained dozens of rabbis.
“This topic picked me up. I got caught up in it, and I realized there was something to be done. Before I knew it, I saw an important response from the community. So I said to myself, if this is so important to people, Maybe I should,” Rosensweig told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
Although Rosensweig focuses primarily on the connection between mental health and Jewish law, he wears many hats.He was consecrated by the Orthodox Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in the Maale Adumim settlement, led the Netzach Menashe community in Beit Shemesh, taught at the progressive Orthodox Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, wrote several books, and maintained a significant following for his work cut, a rabbi who makes the actual ruling on Jewish law, or halacha. For example, any of his questions before Passover should not be missed. (Full disclosure: He also officiated at the reporter’s wedding in 2019.)
Rosensweig’s journey into the mental health field began about five years ago when he received questions from the community. To better understand the topic, Rosensweig interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Shmuel Harris, director of Machon Dvir, a behavioral health clinic in Jerusalem.
“My goal was just to answer a few questions. But when I dug deeper and realized there was a lot of work to be done here, we decided to write a book on the topic,” Rosensweig said.
The duo’s book, Nafshi B’She’elati, will be published in Hebrew by Koren Publishers in 2022. An English translation is not expected until later this year, but his work is already making waves in English—in Israel and in language communities around the world.
“I could have chosen to study many topics in halacha. But this one affects hundreds of people every day. I really can’t believe that no one has written a book like this before. It’s so important to people, it directly It’s about their quality of life, sometimes their lives,” he said.
“Nafshi B’She’elati,” 512 pages, is aimed at rabbis and other professionals, with detailed explanations of technical terms (psychological and rabbinic), with footnotes often longer than the text. But even for the casual layman, it’s still a fascinating read on topics such as schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, phobias, autism, and dementia.
Along with the book, Rosensweig also founded Ma’aglei Nefesh: Mental Health, Community and Halacha Center, which helps connect people with mental health issues with therapists and rabbis, produces literature on mental health and halacha, and Perform a 50-hour training course on rabbinic mental health topics.
We know how to talk about cancer, not depression
While he’s far from the only rabbi to consider the link between mental health and halacha, Rosensweig has become an important voice on the topic, both within religious communities — in synagogues or seminaries — and in the medical or mental health professions personnel, hospital or social worker groups.
Rosensweig held such an event Sunday night, speaking about his work at the Neve Habaron synagogue in the northern town of Zichron Yaakov, where he took the stage with a religious woman who shared her experiences dealing with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts .
The conversation touched on both the need for the community to broaden their thinking about mental health and what considerations he had in his ruling on halacha.
Rosensweig said he hopes that through events like this, the community will learn the vocabulary necessary to openly discuss mental health, just as they already have the vocabulary for physical health.
“Even if you don’t have professional medical training, you can gossip about being healthy. If you find out that a person — oh my god — has cancer, someone will say, ‘Have you seen an oncologist? Have you started chemo? Not sure what chemo is, not really, but I can still talk about it and sound sensitive and well-informed so people feel like they can talk to me about it. If I meet them on the street, I can ask How are they doing, how are they feeling,” Rosensweig said.
“But when it’s depression, we don’t know what to say. That’s the problem. I know five years ago, I didn’t know how to talk about mental health. What happens when it comes down. Do you see a psychologist? A psychiatrist? A social worker? How long does it last? What’s the process like? If you saw that person, what would you ask, “How’s your depression?” “What are the right and sensitive words to say?” he said.
Halacha and Mental Health
For devout Jews, halacha governs most aspects of their lives, such as what and what they eat, how they interact with their families, and how they spend the Sabbath. In some cases, these religious laws can be challenging or even dangerous for people with certain mental health issues. For example, fasting on Yom Kippur can trigger a potentially serious relapse in someone with an eating disorder.
Much of “Nafshi B’She’elati” and Rosensweig’s work focuses on delving into the source material to discover which aspects of halacha are flexible, where exceptions can be made, and which are expressly divine prohibitions that cannot be replaced. Some of this is based on the nature of the commandment – did it come directly from the Bible or was it later developed by the rabbis – and some is based on its effect on the person – is it life saving or just palliative?
However, while much of “Nafshi B’She’elati” deals with issuing halachic leniency for people with various mental health conditions, Rosensweig stresses that rabbis shouldn’t be blindly lenient either, to ensure the person feels they are still kosher Law, is still part of the religious community.
He pointed out that no one is forced to obey Jewish law. Those who came to him didn’t want to escape their religious obligations; they wanted to follow them.
“People want to fast on Yom Kippur. If you tell them they can’t, they feel ostracized from the group and the community. They want to be a part of this holy and awesome day. It’s a shame when someone is told they can’t fast. It’s not good news for them — it’s hard news,” Rosensweig told the three dozen or so people gathered at the Zichron Yaakov synagogue.
Rosensweig cites a relatively common example of a person suffering from depression or anxiety being helped by listening to music. What can such a person do on the Sabbath when electricity is restricted?
In theory, the rabbi could simply allow such a person to use their phone or computer to listen to music on Shabbat, Rosensweig said. Doing so, however, doesn’t necessarily make people feel like they’re keeping the laws of the Sabbath.
“We are trying to remove the stigma. We want people dealing with mental health issues to feel cared for and understood, not feel separated, excluded or second class. Every exception made for a person for mental health reasons is a It’s a failure for them, like they didn’t really keep the Sabbath, they’re not as strong as everyone else,” he said.
Instead, he recommends having the person loop a playlist before Sabbath, so that if they need to listen to music, they just have to put their headphones on without actually turning anything on.
“You need to strike a balance in the way you govern Halazar,” he said.