At first, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig was just looking for some answers to some questions he had been asked about Jewish law and mental health. It quickly turned into a book and then a center, which he helps run and which has already trained dozens of rabbis.
“This topic chose me. I fell into it and realized that there was something to do. And before I knew it, I saw that there was a significant response from the community. So I said to myself, if this is so important to people, maybe I should do this,” Rosensweig told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
Although he is primarily focused on this connection between mental health and Jewish law, Rosensweig wears many hats. Ordained by the Orthodox Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in the Maale Adumim settlement, he leads the community of Netzach Menashe in Beit Shemesh, teaches at the Progressive Orthodox Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, has written several books, and maintains a significant following through his work as CUTTING, a rabbi who makes practical decisions on Jewish law or halacha. For example, his Ask Me sessions before Easter are not to be missed. (Full disclosure: He also officiated this reporter’s wedding in 2019.)
Rosensweig’s journey into mental health began approximately five years ago when he received several questions from his community. Seeking to better understand the subject, Rosensweig spoke with Dr. Shmuel Harris, a psychiatrist and director of Machon Dvir, a behavioral health clinic in Jerusalem.
“My goal was to answer only a few questions. But as I got into it and realized there’s a lot more work to be done here, we decided to write a book on the subject,” said Rosensweig.
The book the two wrote together, “Nafshi B’She’elati,” was published in Hebrew by Koren Publishers in 2022. An English translation isn’t expected until later this year, but his work has already made waves in English-speaking communities in Israel and around the world.
“There are many topics in halacha that I could have chosen to examine. But this affects hundreds or thousands of people every day. It’s actually unbelievable to me that a book like this hasn’t been written before. It’s something that is very important to people, which is directly related to their quality of life and sometimes to their life itself,” he said.
The 512-page Nafshi B’She’elati is aimed at rabbis and other professionals, with detailed explanations of technical terminology—both psychological and rabbinical—and notes that are often longer than the main text. But even for ordinary people, it’s still an engaging read, tackling topics like schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, phobias, autism and dementia.
With the publication of the book, Rosensweig also founded Ma’aglei Nefesh: Center for Mental Health, Community and Halacha, which helps connect people with mental health problems with therapists and rabbis, produces literature on mental health and halacha, and conducts 50 – training hours for rabbis on mental health topics.
We know how to talk about cancer, not depression
Although he is not the only rabbi to consider the connection between mental health and halacha, Rosensweig has emerged as a prominent voice on the subject, speaking about it at least once a week either within religious communities—in synagogues or seminaries—or in medicine or mental health professionals, in hospitals or social worker groups.
Rosensweig held one such event Sunday night, speaking about his work at Neve Habaron Synagogue in the northern city of Zichron Yaakov, where he was joined on stage by a religious woman who shared her experiences with anxiety, depression and thoughts about suicide.
The conversation addressed the need for communities to expand their thinking about mental health and what considerations go into its halacha rulings.
Rosensweig said his hope is that through events like this, communities will learn the vocabulary needed to have open discussions about mental health, just as they already have about physical health.
“Even if you don’t have professional medical training, you can make small talk about physical health. If you find out that a person – don’t hide it – has cancer, someone will say: ‘Have you seen an oncologist? Have you started chemotherapy?’ I don’t know what chemotherapy is, not really, but I can still talk about it and sound sensitive and informed so that the person feels they can talk to me about it. If I run into them on the street, I can ask them how they’re doing, how they’re feeling,” Rosensweig said.
“But when it’s depression, we don’t know what to say. This is the problem. I know that five years ago, I didn’t know how to have such a conversation about mental health. If you find out that someone has depression, you often don’t know what comes next. Do you see a psychologist? A psychiatrist? A social worker? How long? What is the process? And if you see that person, what do you ask: ‘How is your depression?’ What is the right and sensible thing to say?” he said.
Halacha and mental health
For religious Jews, halacha governs most aspects of their lives, such as how and what they eat, how they interact with family, and how they spend Shabbat. These religious laws can be challenging or even dangerous in some cases for people with certain mental health problems. Fasting on Yom Kippur can cause a potentially severe relapse for a person who has dealt with an eating disorder, for example.
“Nafshi B’She’elati” and much of Rosensweig’s work focuses on delving into the source material to find what aspects of halacha are flexible, where exceptions can be made, and what are clear divine prohibitions that cannot be are replaced. Some of this is based on the nature of the commandment – whether it comes directly from the Bible or was developed later by the rabbis – and some is based on the effect it would have on the person – is it life-saving or merely palliative?
However, while much of Nafshi B’She’elati deals with granting halachic relief to people with various mental health conditions, Rosensweig emphasized that rabbis should not be blindly permissive either in order to ensure that the person to feel that they are still obeying Jewish Law and are still part of a religious community.
He noted that no one is obligated to follow Jewish law. People who come to him do not seek to get out of religious obligations; they want to follow them.
“People want to fast on Yom Kippur. If you tell them they can’t, they feel rejected by the group, by the community. They want to be a part of this holy and wonderful day. When someone is told they can’t fast, it’s not good news for them — it’s hard news,” Rosensweig told three dozen people gathered at the Zichron Yaakov synagogue.
Rosensweig offered an example, a relatively common one, of a person with depression or anxiety who is helped by listening to music. What can such a person do on the Sabbath when the use of electricity is limited?
In theory, Rosensweig said, a rabbi could simply allow such a person to use his phone or computer to listen to music on Shabbat. However, doing so would not necessarily make the person feel that they are keeping the laws of the Sabbath.
“We are trying to fight the stigma. We want people dealing with mental health issues to feel seen and understood, not to feel that they are apart of the pack, that they are rejected, that they are second class. Any exemption made for a person for mental health reasons seems like a failure, like they’re not really keeping Shabbat, that they’re not strong like everyone else,” he said.
Instead, he recommends that the person put a playlist on loop before Shabbat, so that if they must listen to music, they only need to put their headphones on without turning anything on.
“You have to strike a balance in how you rule on halacha,” he said.
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