December 12, 2009
“Neurosis Is Not Being Religious!”
My brother Paul, of blessed memory, once told me a joke about a prominent member of a large congregation in Los Angeles who reveals to the rabbi that God has recently started manifesting himself and engaging in conversation with the congregant, “face to face,” just as the Torah tells us that Moses once did.
“There are many fine psychiatrists and psychologists in our congregation,” says the rabbi, “who can help you with your problem.”
I was reminded of my late brother’s joke when I came across “Religious Compulsions and Fears: A Guide to Treatment” by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek (Feldheim Publishers: $29.99). The author is a clinical psychologist and an ordained rabbi who was trained in New York and now practices in Israel. His book is offered to rabbis, therapists and Jewish families to assist them in identifying and dealing with the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as it manifests in observant Jews.
A saying of the Steipler Gaon — “Nerven is nisht frumkeit!” (Neurosis is not being religious!) — sums up the premise of Dr. Bonchek’s book. He wholly embraces the notion that religious observance is the duty of a good Jew: “From the moment a Jew opens his eyes in the morning to the moment he closes them at night,” he writes, “his day is guided by mitzvah observance.” But he also concedes that highly observant Jews who suffer from OCD are always at risk of going too far.
“When OCD becomes related to the performance of mitvos,” he explains, “the mitzvos take on a weighty burden of anxiety, which not only inflicts much psychological pain on the individual, it also causes him/her to distort the performance of the mitzvah.”
The book offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of OCD among observant Jews. To ensure that he was ritually pure before engaging in prayer, one young man cleaned himself sixty or seventy times after visiting the bathroom even though he had been admonished by “such gedolim as the Divrei Chaim and the Steipler Rav [that] one need only clean oneself five times.” A married woman washed her hands so compulsively that her skin was red and raw, and so she worried that “the ‘blood’ from her cracked skin make the dishes treif.”
The dilemma for the psychotherapist is that the classic symptoms of OCD — including repetitive handwashing — are sometimes hard to discern when they are overlaid on the religious duties of an observant Jew, who is required to be ritually clean and make other preparations before engaging in prayer, to recite prayers in a specified order, and to repeat certain prayers. Indeed, the checklist of compulsive behaviors — washing and cleaning, checking, repeating, ordering, and hoarding — can also apply to various aspects of Jewish ritual.
“Men’s compulsion may be expressed by repetitive checking to see if their tefillin are positioned exactly in the right places,” writes Dr. Bonchek. “The checkings become repetitive because after each check by eye or with a mirror, the doubts return.”
The laudable goal of “Religious Compulsions and Fears” is to encourage observant Jews to seek the assistance of rabbis and psychotherapists when strict religious observance crosses into psychological dysfunction: “Such behavior is not frum at all; in fact, it frequently interferes seriously with true avodas Hashem.”
Many Jewish readers are likely to see an irony at work here. From a secular point of view, all religious observance can be seen as a kind of magical thinking, and that’s the whole point of the joke that my brother told. And so Dr. Bonchek’s self-help book may provoke a fundamental reconsideration of why we engage in prayer and ritual in the first place and what we expect to accomplish when we do.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.