Judaism and Mental Illness

Many instances of mental instability are recorded in the Bible and in rabbinic literature.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Among the curses threatened for faithlessness to the covenant is 'so that thou shalt be mad (meshugga) for the sake of thine eyes which thou shalt see (Deuteronomy 28:34).' King Saul was terrified by an evil spirit and David was invited to play the harp so that Saul could find relief (I Samuel 16:14-23). David feigned madness when he fled to the court of Achish the king of Gath (I Samuel 21:13-16; Psalms 31:1).

A Midrashic comment on this is that David questioned why God should have created such a purposeless state as insanity. But when he saved his life by pretending to be mad, David came to see that madness also has a purpose.

In one passage (Hosea 9:7), the prophet is described as 'mad', though it is clear from the context that this term is used ironically. Some moderns have understood the biblical record here and elsewhere to imply that a man who has received a vision from on high is bound to have had a profound disturbance of his mental equilibrium. In the Rabbinic literature madness or melancholia is often attributed to an evil spirit, ruahyaah.

It is axiomatic in Jewish law that an imbecile, shoteh in Hebrew, is held responsible for his actions neither by a human court nor by the divine judgment. But there is considerable uncertainty about the degree of mental instability required for a person to be considered a shoteh.

Trying to Define Insanity

The classical definition stated in the Talmud (Hagigah 3b) is one who goes out alone at night, stays overnight in the cemetery, and rends his garments. The Talmud discusses this further but the definition remains more than a little opaque.

silhouette of woman looking through curtainsMaimonides, in his Code (Edut, 9.9-10), after stating that a shoteh is disqualified from acting as a witness in a court of law, observes that in this context a shoteh is not only one who walks about naked or breaks vessels or throws stones but whoever is mentally disturbed.

Evidently, Maimonides understands the Talmudic definition to be in the nature of a broad, general assessment so that for practical purposes the term denotes anyone whose mind is disturbed with regard to any one matter and Maimonides proceeds to extend the scope of the law as follows: 'Those especially stupid in that they cannot note contradictions and cannot understand any matter in the way normal people do, and so, too, those who are confused and hasty in their minds and behave in an excessively crazy fashion, these are embraced by the term shoteh. This matter must depend on the assessment of the judge since it is impossible to record in writing an adequate definition of insanity.'

Thus Maimonides, perhaps because of his knowledge of medicine, finds the notion of insanity too complicated and too vague to be recorded in a precise legal definition, so that the decision must be left to the discretion of the judge in each particular case.

Implications for Divorce & Marriage

The problem of defining insanity is particularly acute in connection with divorce. An insane wife cannot be divorced. Freehof is wrong in stating that the reason for this is because it amounts to divorce by force since the ban on a husband divorcing his wife without her consent did not obtain in Talmudic times.

The reason given in the Talmud is that a divorce involves sending the wife away, in the language of Deuteronomy (24:1-4), and an insane wife cannot be 'sent away' since she will continue to consider herself to be married and will constantly return to her husband.

Yet the problem of the insane wife is usually resolved by granting a dispensation of the ban against polygamy; in other words, the husband is required to make adequate provision for the support of his insane wife and he is then permitted to take another wife. In practice this dispensation is not given unless 100 Rabbis residing in three different lands examine the case and sign the dispensation.

An insane husband cannot divorce his wife because he lacks the requisite degree of mental stability to know what he is doing. An insane person cannot effect a valid marriage but it is possible for a man whose mental capacity is weak to contract a valid marriage in his lucid periods.

It follows that it is possible, because of the difficulties inherent in the problem of defining insanity, that a man of weak mind may have possessed a sufficient degree of mental stability for his marriage to be valid and yet lack that degree when he attempts to divorce his wife.

Such a marriage would result in the wife becoming an agunah, a woman technically married to a husband from whom she cannot obtain a legal divorce. All this became the subject of the cause celebre in the eighteenth century known as the Get of Cleaves. Here the various Rabbis who took part in the debate were often divided on the question of the state of mind required for a man to be held to be insane.

The tendency among Rabbis today is to be lenient with regard to some forms of mental illness such as split personality or manic depression, so as to allow the divorce provided the husband's mind is sufficiently lucid to enable him to know what he is doing when he authorizes the delivery of the get, the bill of divorce.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.