Judaism and Mental Illness

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

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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.