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The insightful Talmudic sages developed the notion of how an otherwise normal person can act in a religiously insane manner. Lessons for today's world as well.

Contemporary Religious Insanity

Let me begin by clarifying how the term religious insanity is not intended. By it I do not refer to individuals who are from a psychiatric perspective diagnosable as insane and who happen to be religious in their upbringing or adapted behavior. Such an individual would be classified in Halakha as mentally incompetent and are not considered culpable for their actions. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Kama 87a and Gittin 22b) The definition of religious insanity that is taken as our point of departure is one that emerges from the teachings of the Talmudic sages who were keen and critical observers of human behavior in both its ideal and distorted expressions.

The Talmudic sages consider as religiously insane a seemingly normal religious individual who in various key moments acts in an insane manner, a manner where they are unable to navigate reality and appropriately discern between which Torah values and laws are appropriate to apply in a critical and defining instance. This failure to be able to navigate reality with the proper applications of Torah values and laws leads to demonstrably disastrous effects on other human beings.

Let us now explore three cases where the Talmudic sages label the misguided individual as religiously insane and see how the definition articulated above emerges from it.

The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Sotah 21b defines a man as a Chasid Shoteh (Religiously Insane) if, ”They see a woman drowning in a river and they say to themselves, ’It is not proper to gaze upon her and save her.’” In this instance the individual is unable to discern that the value of a human life takes precedence over his temporary and in the greater scheme of things non- consequential sexual stimulation. Here the issue is that the maintenance of sexual purity in thought and deed overwhelms what should be the spiritual instinct, value and law to respect and preserve human life.

The Jerusalem Talmud in tractate Sotah Chapter 3 Halakha 4 page 17a provides further examples worthy of our attention. First and similar to the illustration from the Babylonian Talmud above it describes a man, ”Who sees a child drowning in the river and says, ’When I take off my Teffilin (Phylacteries) I will save him.” The case assumes there is not sufficient time to do that and moreover he should not hesitate to even consider the Teffilin given the overriding priority of saving a human life and time being of the essence. (see Korban Ha’Edah commentary ad. loc) In this instance the sanctity with which Teffilin should ordinarily be treated and their preservation take precedence in the religiously insane mind over the sanctity of the life of the individual — a clear inversion of Halakhic values if ever there was one.

Another example the Jerusalem Talmud cites is where a betrothed maiden is being pursued to be raped and a man has the ability to save her;  he is permitted by law to kill the aggressor if necessary to save her; yet he refrains from involving himself out of concern for causing bloodshed to the aggressor. (See Pnai Moshe commentary ad. loc) Here again we are presented with a brutal portrayal of what the upending and distortion of religious priorities manifests as in the life of a religiously insane individual.  While the concern for shedding of blood is otherwise meritorious, the Torah likens such rape to murder (Deuteronomy 22:26) and the religiously insane individual is beholden to an absurd sense of respect for life.

While we can be appreciative that the Talmudic sages could, in the medical metaphor to be utilized herein, diagnose religious insanity, we need to inquire further as to how such religious insanity develops – what are its origins? In medical terms — what is its etiology? We also need to consider what is its pathology? That is, to examine what is the nature of the distortion — the mechanism — that is the direct cause of religious insanity. We will first address the nature of the pathology and then make our way to explore its etiology.

When one examines these examples provided by the Talmudic sages that deal with drowning or rape what is apparent is that in each situation there is a narrowing and organizing of consciousness around a certain value to the exclusion of another value. This narrowing blocks the individual’s ability to respond to reality in a truly creative and wholesome fashion. In this understanding religiously insane individuals suffer from a form of perceptual distortion, in the language of Gestalt psychology — what should become Ground remains Figure and what should emerge as Figure stays Ground. (see Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction section on Field Theory by Dr. Gary Yontef)  That is to say, that what needs to shift to the center of attention and prioritization is held in the background of attention and garners secondary status, and what needs to move into the background of a person’s attention stays front and center and is priority number one.  This narrowing is thus also accompanied by a rigidification around a value or law that while in ordinary circumstances is worthy, in the presenting circumstance is in dire need of setting aside.

When we turn to the etiology of religious insanity we inevitably become entangled in the Nature Vs. Nurture debate to which many resolve by transcending the “either / or” approach and substituting it with “this and that”. Likewise, we must allow that there are certain individuals who are prone to such narrowing and rigidification. We must as well consider that Rabbinic Judaism and its various expressions can, depending on the particular emphasis, exacerbate a pre-existing vulnerability or in some cases make individuals more prone to such issues. To best illustrate the etiology of religious insanity we need, like the Talmudic sages, to provide a contemporary illustration to support the above analysis.

Many of us have, to our hearts grief, heard of the recent episode in Bet Shemesh, Israel where an Ultra-Orthodox religious man spat on a young Orthodox girl who was not — in his view — dressed modestly enough. (see article Bet Shemesh Modesty Wars in Jewish Week by Michele Chabin) The girl conformed to the quite Orthodox standards of modesty in her own community, that has the misfortune of having its All Girl’s School in proximity to the community of this particular religiously insane individual. It should be pointed out the vast majority of the members of the more Ultra-Orthodox community did not engage in such vicious behavior but there have been instances where behavior similar in intention and quality has occurred.  This case presents us with the distortion and upending of religious values that are classic indications of religious insanity. The halakhic laws and values of: respect for human dignity, of loving your neighbor as yourself, of not damaging another person physically or psychologically are all dismissed in the abyss of fanaticism and what is present is the all-consuming value of modesty.

Dennis Prager, a Liberal Jewish thinker, once said that, ”The difference between an extremist and a moderate is that an extremist has one value; a moderate has two.” That is to say that an extremist has one value to which they have complete allegiance — to the exclusion of any other value. The moderate seeks to navigate between two values, which can be each going on their own independent trajectory and often compromises on and reigns in each of them to retain some portion of them both for a greater perceived good.

While modesty is clearly a Biblical and Prophetic value in relation to God as in, ”Do not ascend on steps my altar so that your nakedness not be revealed on it.”(Exodus 20:23)  and, ”Mortal! He told you what is good and what God seeks from you nothing more than to act justly, love kindness and walk modestly with your God.”   (Micah 6:8) This value of modesty morphs and expresses itself in rabbinic laws (see Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer 21:1-2) that apply to both women and men and it is not limited to what one wears but as well has to do with what we would call one’s way of being. Modesty includes yet transcends issues of sexuality and clothing and is related to humility, not drawing attention to one’s self and not wearing one’s righteousness on one’s sleeves. (Talmud Bavli Makkot 24a)

However, in the mind of the religiously insane of Bet Shemesh, what is Figure, what is center stage, is the supreme value of his limited and aggravated understanding of modesty which he narrowly and rigidly organizes around in his stupefying ignorance and boorishness.  So the diagnosis and pathology in this instance are clear; now let us turn to its etiology.

While we need to acknowledge that the individual men who are acting in a religiously insane manner are a minority of a minority, and it is fair to say that there is some internal propulsion within that makes them vulnerable to such religious insanity, we must as well look at the culture where they are raised and educated and determine to what extent if any this culture is a contributive factor to their mental and religious aberration.

Let us ask the following questions: If the society in which these men were raised instilled in them from the earliest of ages a profound respect for all human life, a deep respect for women as spiritual subjects not objects, a pervasive humility as well as a tolerance for difference do we imagine that such behavior as has taken the international stage could emerge in such an individual unless they truly were insane within DSM III standards? While there is no utopian Torah community, there are communities that stress differing values within Torah. We should not be surprised that when a community does not acknowledge, or is not disturbed by nor struggles with the misogyny and inequality within its own tradition, and when a community sees a value in focusing on the ever-increasing control of women’s bodies, clothing, hair, voices and very presence and perspective — we should not be surprised that such behavior amongst the weakest mental and moral links of this society act in a religiously insane manner. It is in fact entirely predictable as it is entirely horrifying to anyone with the minutest sense of moral conscience.  It is the author’s contention that the Ultra-Orthodox community as a whole, with its self-selected and signature implementation of pre-modern Torah ethos is fundamentally causal in the etiology of this particular manifestation of religious insanity.

Why is it we must inquire that Chabad Hassidism, which shares many of the faith assumptions, values and halakhic practices of Ultra- Orthodox Judaism, why is it inconceivable that such a religiously insane behavior like the one in Bet Shemesh could ever occur?  The answer in this regard is quite simple — the Chabad movement, and in particular its late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l prioritized the Biblical, Rabbinic and Hassidic value of Love of Israel on a global scale and as well the value of the tolerance and acceptance of our fellow Jew and Jewess. While I am not uncritical of Chabad nor am I a Chabad Hasid it is a clear illustration of within Ultra-Orthodoxy itself how emphasis on differing values leads to different results in the extreme. Could we imagine if every Chabad House were focused on enforcing some extremist reading of modesty in contrast to their fine work in developing Jewish literacy, involvement and continuity?  God save us!

We have covered diagnosis, pathology and etiology and what remains is treatment; perhaps the most complex of the four. While it would be simple to write a prescription of more well-rounded Torah and General education for the Ultra-Orthodox community, greater social contact and meaningful dialogue with other groups of Jewish people and perhaps some mass shamanistic sessions to get all the emotional genies out of the collective Ultra-Orthodox bottle, all of these have little hope of being implemented. Ultimately, Israeli society and the power of the state apparatus will need to insure the continuity of an intellectually open and honest discourse and the enhancement of civil and religious liberties as part of their preservation of the Zionist ideal of a free society. It is my hope that the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community will, prior to the messianic advent, be a fundamental and creative contributor to that effort for their sake and all of ours. It is very unwise for an Ultra-Orthodox minority to seek to utilize physical intimidation or political power to coerce conformity with its values and norms as this minority would not respond well to having the secular or halakhically liberal values and norms of the majority imposed on it. Thus at a minimum we need to insure that the Ultra-Orthodox community absorb the teaching, down to its lowest common denominator, of Hillel the sage, ”What is hateful to you do not do unto your friend…”(Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a)

About Rabbi Zecharyah Goldman

Rabbi Zecharyah Goldman
Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman is the founder and rabbinic administrator of the EarthKosher Kosher Certification Agency. He is also the founder and director of the Institute for Halakhic Conversion. He is the author of a broad range of books, essays and articles covering a diverse arena of Torah including: Halakha, Kabbalah, Chassidut and Aggada. A Lifelong student of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology he currently studies Torah and Chinese Internal Martial Arts and lives with his wife Ora and 3 children in Boulder, Colorado.

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3 comments

  1. Those religiously insane were kicked out of Mea Shearim and they moved to Beit Shemesh and Beit Shemesh does not want them.The orthodox women in response to the actions of this man did a demonstration of the exercise of their rights by dancing together in the village square, findable on Youtube: "Official Beit Shemesh Women Flashmob".

    It is said that making people think less of God is breaking the commandment of "Don't take God's name in vain." It seems to me that these men are breaking this commandment out of the 10.
    They are also breaking the rule of loving-kindness.They are also breaking the rule of "walking humbly" since they refuse to learn from the rabbis who tell them they are doing wrong, and thereby are exhibiting arrogance. They must have a bad teacher.

  2. Very clear, impassioned, and well reasoned article. Yasher Kochacha. IMHO authentic Judaism is continually about evaluating and deciding between clashing principles and choices. This, I understand, will also be true in the Messianic age, and therefore even when the world will exist in a 'Gan Eden' consciousness,and there will be no 'evil inclination' as we know it now, life will not be boring. It will still take all our knowledge and intelligence to make the wisest choice in any given situation.

    The etiology of a contrasting 'ultra-orthodox position such as Chabad which you refer to, is illustrated by a Chassidic story from this week's parsha-Mishpatim, in the context of the mitzvah of giving a loan to the needy: The third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, used to receive after-life visitations from his grandfather, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe. When the grandson would have questions about Torah, his Zeide would help clarify the issues. Once however, the grandfather stopped coming. Meanwhile, one morning- which happened to be the town's market day, the young man was on his way to prayer services, when a poor man accosted him begging for a loan, so that he could purchase some merchandise. The rabbi said that he had left his money at home, and would miss the minyan if he went home to get the money. So he told the indigent man that he would give it to him later. However, the man's face sunk in disappointment, saying that by that time it would be too late; the good merchandise would be gone. The rabbi weighed his options and decided to go home then and there, even if he missed the minyan. When he returned to the marketplace, it took quite a while to find the poor man but finally he did. By the time he got to shul, it was empty so he had to pray alone. When he returned home, his grandfather appeared to him, after a long hiatus, and clarified his Torah questions. The grandson asked why he returned on that particular day. His Zeide replied the following: (wording is mine from a song I wrote in a play I put on with the Boulder Jewish Day School a few years ago)

    'He who gives his friend with all his heart, from a feeling deep inside, he is showered with many powers, for him, all the gates of heaven are opened wide.'
    'religious sanity, and inspiring not just other Jews, but all of humanity.

  3. Rabbi Zecharyah Goldman

    Morah Yehudis thank you for the heartfelt and inspiring story. I did not add this to the original article but I believe the issue of evaluating and choosing between a variety of values is something we all face in varying aspects of our lives and as well something we all err in. The example in Bet Shemesh is just an extreme example but much of life confronts us with choices of which value to actualize in a given situation and it requires much attention and reflection to make the best choices. This is not just true individually but also communally.