Rabbi Alexandra Wright
15 May 2018
Two weeks ago, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue held its annual Kabbalat Torah service – one of the highlights of our year and always a source of great pride for any Liberal Jewish congregation. The class of nine fifteen year olds led the Friday evening and Shabbat morning service, read from the Torah and each delivered a D’var Torah on their chosen theme.
Choosing a theme that these nine young people would agree on was always going to be a bit of a challenge. I had brought in some texts as a stimulus for conversation, but very quickly, the discussion turned to something else and I was blown away by the consensus and the strength of feeling by each of the individuals in the room. The subject they settled on was ‘stress’ – the stress of family, siblings, school, social media, especially Instagram, academic work, appearance and a host of other things.
It was only after we had had this conversation and they started to write their Divrei Torah, that I discovered that the focus for this year’s for Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May) is stress. Here is how the Mental Health Foundation describes stress:
‘The social scientist Michael Marmot describes stress as what happens when we can’t control what is happening to us. And today our brain cannot distinguish between a lion’s menacing presence and the affront of a rude person who pushes past you in the queue. The physiological response is the same. Many of us are triggering our stress response repeatedly every day – day in, day out.
‘It leads to what the experts call the allostatic overload. Instead of out-witting the lion and then retreating to a nearby cave, repeated stressful events is (sic) like being chased all day by a lion on repeat. Sound like one of your days? It turns out that this is very bad for us. It makes us sick.’
Two things emerged from my discussion with the KT class: one was that a couple of them decided to attend a Sunday evening ‘Mindfulness and Milkshakes’ session at the JAMI Head Room Café in Golders Green, engaging in well-being activities for young people between the ages of 14 and 18 and finding ways to manage their stress. It was to their credit that they found time to go to this, while their classmates were wrestling with the pressure of homework and getting ready for school the next day.
The second thing were nine quite remarkable pieces of writing that were not only about themselves, but about some of the most live issues in the public arena at the moment including the stress endured by asylum seekers and refugees, the #MeToo campaign, the stress of living in a world of fake news, of not knowing what is true and what is false. They drew on biblical stories: the sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers. Two focused on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac and highlighted the intense and difficult relationship that must have resulted for Abraham and Isaac; one looked at issues of slavery and trafficking in the modern world drawing on the story of the Exodus from Egypt and another analysed the story of the rape of Dinah and related it to the abuse of women in our own time.
Two weeks later, I was in a classroom with the younger KT group, due to have their service in 2019 and took in the story of 104 year old Professor David Goodall, the scientist who had chosen to fly to Switzerland to end his life, because his mobility and quality of life had deteriorated. I intended to look at different Jewish views on assisted dying, but almost immediately, the class took up the – still taboo – subject of suicide. Many of the class had been deeply affected by a recent suicide at JFS – they knew someone who had known the young man who had taken his life just a few weeks ago; others had heard about another tragedy a year ago. One girl had been in her school when a Year 11 girl had taken her own life and the school had gone into ‘lockdown.’ Although their schools did speak about stress, they told me, there was no discussion about suicide and while one understands the reasons for not bringing this up with young people, we need to declare clearly that as communities and Rabbis, we are there for these young people so that they can talk about their fears and bring them into the open.
Thinking about Jewish sources on mental illness is challenging. For legal purposes, the Talmud groups together the deaf person, the shoteh (‘insane’) and a minor – these three are exempt not only from appearing at the Temple, but even from rejoicing at festivals – although as so often in these cases, aggadah, the narrative of Talmud and midrash subverts the law to teach us not to assume lack of learning, intelligence and consciousness in those whom we may not understand and who are different from us in some way.
For the Talmud, those who are affected by madness include those who persistently expose themselves unnecessarily to danger, who are destructive who, as the Rabbis term it ‘have action, but no thought’ and are not deemed to be responsible and, therefore, cannot enter into any transaction that requires consent.
The issue of mental health in our own society is deeply troubling. I read recently a biography of a young woman, rejected by her ultra-orthodox ‘yeshivish’ family for what in an open society would be an innocent friendship with a young man, the brother of a friend at the seminary where she was studying. Completely isolated from family and friends, she loses control of her life and begins to self-harm, eventually attempting suicide as a massive cri de coeur. Her desperation is compounded by the almost total lack of sympathy, warmth and kindness with which she is treated in the emergency room of a New York hospital. (Cut Me Loose, Leah Vincent, 2014).
The self-harming, she explains is ‘a coping mechanism. The emotion gets so intense in me, I feel like I’m going to explode. Cutting opens me. Then the emotions can come out. It calms me down. It lets me feel.’
We still understand so little about mental illness and there remains considerable punitive judgement surrounding instability and mania. Anyone who has visited, let alone been a patient in some of the lesser resourced psychiatric facilities will have been shocked by the bland and sometimes dehumanising surroundings in which severely ill patients exist for months and months at a time.
In truth we all sit and indeed move from place to place on a spectrum between stability and instability. How we deal with a difficult biography, with traumatic events in our lives, or genetic, clinical predispositions can sometimes feel like an uncertain lottery.
In a Talmudic story about the nephews of Rabbi Yochanan who never spoke, we learn that the great Rabbi Judah the Prince prayed for them and they were cured and the Talmud adds, it was found that they were versed in the whole gamut of Jewish religious tradition.
Those who speak out about mental illness, who are able to share their experiences either in writing or, like Jonny Benjamin who spoke recently at a Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group Chavurah supper about his own experience of mental illness, and who speaks regularly to teenagers and students, require our support and encouragement and certainly not our rash judgement.
We are still too quick to ‘blame’ individuals for ‘difficult’ behaviour, as though somehow depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other conditions are their fault. And it is that judgement that creates the taboo around mental health and illness.
Synagogues have much to offer individuals who are going through difficult times or who are in the process of recovering. The spiritual environment of a service; a place for learning and socialising where no one can be judged for what they have or don’t have, what they are or are not. In a world that can often seem alienating and unkind to those who struggle unbearably with their existence, the synagogue and its community can embody the compassion and love that lie at the heart of what Judaism requires from us.
For more information on Mental Health Awareness Week, including resources to help deal with stress, visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk.
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