These statements — “Religion is good for you,” “A religious person is a mentally healthy person” — could not have been made when I was a graduate student in psychology back in the 1960s. Quite the contrary, the prevalent belief in the mental health profession then was that religion was a neurosis, and that religious people needed to abandon their irrational beliefs.
Things have changed. Scientific research has proven that religion can have a positive effect upon a person’s mental attitude, and that a person’s religious beliefs can enhance not only his mental health, but even his physical well-being. Mental health professionals are now encouraged to assess the religiosity and spirituality of their patients, and to use a patient’s religious beliefs and behavior as part of the therapeutic process.
This is of great importance to practitioners of all the world’s religions. They certainly have relevance for the Jewish people. Thus, one recent article in a professional journal asks, in its very title, “Are religious beliefs relevant to mental health among Jews?”
The article concludes with this resoundingly affirmative declaration: “Beliefs about G-d’s benevolence are related to mental health among Orthodox Jews; specifically, higher levels of belief predicted lower levels of depression and anxiety.”
The part of me that is a licensed psychologist celebrates these findings. But the part of me that is an ordained rabbi questions whether the fact that religion can be a positive factor in one’s mental health finds support in traditional Jewish sources and, furthermore, whether it is appropriate to practice religion just because of its beneficial effects upon one’s health.
I have long pondered these questions and have found a significant amount of material that helps answer them. One example is found in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan.
Close to the beginning of the parsha, we read, “And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, is giving you. (Deut. 4:1).”
Classical Jewish commentators have been puzzled by the use of the phrase, “to live.” Similar phrases emphasizing “to live” and to “choose life” abound in biblical texts. One commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, puts it this way: Surely our verse could have read, “so that you may enter and occupy the land,” minus the phrase “live to.”
His answer is a startling, indeed frightening, one. He suggests that those who do not “give heed to the laws and rules” are equivalent to idolaters, worshipers of the Pe’or, and they will not be allowed to live, but will be annihilated.
As far as I can tell, ibn Ezra’s explanation remained unchallenged for many centuries. In the late 19th century, however, it was forcefully challenged by none other than Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, more popularly known as the Netziv, in his masterful commentary, Haamek Davar.
Netziv begins by insisting that ibn Ezra’s approach is untenable. He calls it “a wonder;” that is, something that makes no sense to him. First of all, he argues, can we equate all who do not observe the Torah’s laws and rules with worshipers of a pagan idol, Pe’or? With this argument, Rabbi Berlin once again demonstrates the tolerant attitude toward unobservant Jews which characterized his many decades of Jewish community leadership.
He goes on to further ask, “Are all idol worshipers in fact annihilated?” He therefore rejects Ibn Ezra’s commentary, and takes an entirely different approach. His approach is based upon his contention, supported throughout his prolific writings, that the meaning of the word “life” in the Bible often means not just remaining alive biologically, but something close to what we might call joie d’vivre, the joy of living.
As he puts it, “The implication of the word ‘life’ is that of a full life, a happy and meaningful life, replete with the delight one experiences with the achievement of spiritual wholeness.”
• • •
The Netziv enunciates a general principle: Religious emotions enhance and intensify life. Just as intellectual achievements and experiences of prestige and honor stimulate the life force of all human beings, so too do worship and expressions of faith nourish the life force within us. Hence, the person who deprives himself of the opportunities to experience spirituality is denying himself a healthier existence. He is not fully alive, and in a certain sense, he is dead. As our Sages taught, “The wicked, even in their lifetimes, are considered dead.”
Rabbi Berlin is saying that our religious experiences invest us with a tangible and genuine, which in more modern terminology is called “improved,” mental health. This takes the observance of the Torah’s laws and rules beyond the theological sphere into the realm of psychology. There is psychological benefit to religious belief and to religious behavior.
“In our verse, Moses is telling us that heeding the Torah’s laws and rules can bring about a fuller measure of life,” concludes Rabbi Berlin. “This is the meaning of the Mishnah in the second chapter of Avot which declares that ‘he who increases Torah increases his life.’
“This does not mean that he lives longer than others, or that his allotted life span is extended. Rather, it means that he expands the emotional repertoire of his soul and can thereby live a much more pleasant life. …Thus, we say in our Sabbath liturgy that those who taste the Sabbath earn ‘life.’ They literally feel a psychic joy during the Sabbath day.”
We can take away from the Netziv’s interpretation a lesson that is necessary in contemporary times: Religion is not psychically harmful, as many are convinced. It has pragmatic value, not just metaphysical value. Religious faith, observance of ritual, and authentic spiritual experiences can help us cope with the emotional problems of living.
Yes, there are more idealistic reasons for adhering to Judaism. But we are taught that it is sometimes acceptable to follow the Torah for ulterior motives, because those motives will ultimately become transformed into far purer motives. (Mitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah.)
Our faith can help us deal with anxiety and depression; it can enable us to better cope with the challenges and stressors which are unavoidable nowadays. These might not be the best reasons for adopting a religious lifestyle, but they certainly provide a place to start.
Religion is good for you!