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JewishJournal.com

February 25, 2009

OCDism

Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/ocdism_20090225

I recently read a book about a great rabbi who, according to the author, exemplified in his behavior the rule that one should always be concerned with whether he performed mitzvot properly. The rabbi would constantly check himself to make sure that he had not made a mistake and that he had performed his religious duties correctly.

A big neon sign lit up in a remote corner of my mind upon reading this, and the letters O-C-D started flashing. As if the author anticipated my reaction, he went on to say that the rabbi’s behavior should not be confused with general nervousness or what is referred to today as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

His proof? The aforementioned rabbi displayed this concern only in his religious life, but when the issue was his finances, his honor or even his health, he behaved with extreme calmness.

As you can imagine, I was not satisfied with this explanation. Is it true that OCD has to be manifested in all areas of our lives, or could it be limited to specific things such as cleanliness?

Checking to see if the stove is off a few times before leaving the house is normal. But repetitive behaviors, such as handwashing, counting or cleaning, are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Performing these so-called rituals, however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.

OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults, striking men and women equally, and the problem can be accompanied by eating disorders, other anxiety disorders or depression. And it turns out that scrupulosity, a religious form of the disorder, is one of the more common displays of specific OCD. For certain individuals, religious beliefs become compulsive, joyless behaviors, according to Carol E. Watkins, a psychiatrist in Baltimore.

“An Orthodox Jew might worry that he did not perform a particular ritual correctly. He might obsess about this for hours. A Roman Catholic might go to confession several times a day,” she writes.

I have personally witnessed many displays of religious OCD, including people repeating certain prayers, and especially the “Shema,” time after time out of fear they have not pronounced it correctly or that they did not have the proper intention.

Does religion lend itself more easily to support this kind of behavior? I think the answer is yes, since in the religious world there is a higher entity, an omniscient being involved, so the perceived risk and the consequences of making a mistake are much more threatening than someone not washing their hands enough or throwing something away when the impulse is to hoard.


Why am I so obsessed with this issue? Because I believe that in the second half of the book of Shemot, starting with Parshat Terumah, the Torah offers us an amazing insight into this problem, as well as a very practical — although highly neglected — solution.

Anyone raised with the notion that Torah and redundancy are mutually exclusive cannot but wonder why the Torah is so verbose when describing the construction of the Tabernacle. It seems like these chapters were written by the head of the Department of Superfluous Repetition. The words that describe the different fabrics appear dozens of times; the word “Tabernacle” appears close to 100 times and the verb “to make” close to 200 times in the second half of Shemot.

Why? What’s the point?

The point is that the Torah wanted to prevent us from turning our religious life into a compulsive, fear-infused string of uncontrollable actions. You want to obsess about something? Here is your chance — the Temple and the Tabernacle. Everything that has to do with these buildings is described with such detail and discussed so meticulously because it was supposed to cover for all our needs for this type of behavior. And the laws of the Temple were to be practiced by a select group of people, the priests. During the rest of the year, the Torah wanted us to guide our lives with love and compassion, with light in our hearts and not with darkness and fear.

We were supposed to serve HaShem with joy, starting with treating other human beings with respect and dignity. Instead, we have turned religion into a set of rigid laws that narrow our steps and keep us in a state of suspended animation. It is about time we trade OCDism for Chasidism and infuse our religious life with joy, happiness and calmness.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue. He can be contacted via e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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