Jewish Mental Health Values

Jewish Mental Health Values

Jewish values, or middot, help build the foundation on which the Jewish community stands. We believe middot empower us to connect Jewish thought to mental wellness. Jewish literature and discussion have focused on healing, wellness, and community for years, yet we often shroud mental health in a cone of silence. To emphasize the role the Jewish community plays in promoting mental wellness, the Blue Dove Foundation focuses on the following eight middot.  

בצלם אלוהים – B’tzelem Elohim – Created “in God’s Image” 

Any conversation about mental wellness in its full spectrum must begin with a foundation of dignity and respect. Being created b’tzelem Elohim (Genesis1:26)—in God’s image—means all of humanity should be afforded dignity and respect, and showing these values to those experiencing mental illness and/or addiction can counter the shame and stigma that exist.

When they ate off the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve gave birth to the concept of awareness. An important tool, awareness can prevent and heal, or it can harm. A mental health approach that combines dignity with awareness will move us closer to a stigma-free environment. The leaders of the Jewish community can boldly change attitudes around mental wellness to become sources of health and healing.

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה – Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La Zeh – All Jews are Responsible for One Another

The Talmud (Shavuot 39a) teaches that members of the Jewish community are responsible for each other. In simple terms, we are interconnected and must be invested in the mental wellness and overall well-being of everyone. We must be willing, informed, and prepared to help one another, because we all benefit.

רפואה שלימה – Refuah Shleimah – Healing and Wholeness

Judaism has a long tradition of recognizing that healing is not just physical; it is holistic, which is to say it has physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual components that are all interconnected.

When we recite the mi sheberach for healing, we pray for refuat hanefesh v’refuat haguf, a healing of spirit and of body. Many wise people in our tradition have long understood our spirit to encompass both our emotional and spiritual well-being. Such a time-honored tradition has prepared us well to inherit this value and put it into practice. With our resources and greater understanding today, our twenty-first-century Jewish communities can interpret and expand how we pray for refuat hanefesh v’refuat haguf.

The Jewish tradition also emphasizes healing rather than curing. Even when mental illness is under control, healing and a return to wholeness is in order. We see healing as a process that has many components and may be a lifelong journey.

חסד וגבורה – Chesed u’Gevurah – Balancing Loving Kindness and Discernment

In the mystical tradition, chesed (loving kindness) and gevurah (judgment and limitation) balance one another. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato taught that the world was formed so we might extend kindness and love to all that was created. It has also been noted that chesed is an embodied practice where nothing material is required except an open and caring presence. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (a teacher of Mussar, an ethical Jewish movement) instructs that, executed well, chesed requires us to put aside our projections and assumptions about what someone needs and really listen, so we can see what the person in front of us is saying. Too often we diagnose someone or think we know what might “fix” a situation, but when it comes to mental wellness, we must come from a place of listening and openness. We don’t want to make anyone feel like they are defined by their illness or struggle. At the same time, we want people to know they are being heard. Rabbi Wolbe, an early twentieth century Haredi rabbi, reminds us one of the greatest acts of chesed is to bear a burden with another.

While chesed can be used to break down boundaries so we feel connected to one another, the mystics taught there are times when judgment, discernment, limitations, and boundaries are essential. Unbounded chesed can lead to unrealistic promises, overextending, unhealthy dependence, and depletion. We must understand our limitations. Very few of us are mental health experts; our skills and support come with very clear limitations. We also need to be aware of the realistic nature of our time, resources, and ability. Too many boundaries and limitations lead to an unwelcoming rigidity; without gevurah, we are able to practice chesed more freely.

פיקוח נפש – Pikuach Nefesh – Saving a Life

In Jewish law, there is no greater priority than saving a life. This comes from two texts: 1) “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live” (Leviticus 18:5) and 2) The Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, who said “You shall keep my statutes and my commandments; you shall live by them, but you shall not die because of them.” (Yoma 85b). This leads to the idea that Jewish mitzvot, or commandments, are not about restricting life but rather about enabling us to live our most meaningful lives and helping others do the same.

This reading of Pikuach Nefesh pushes us to reflect on our own actions: Are we life affirming to ourselves and others? Are we acting in ways that celebrate the divine spark (B’tzelem Elohim) in others?

נושא בעול עם חברו – Nosei B’ol Im Chaveiro – Sharing a Burden with One’s Friend

Beyond the idea that all Jews are responsible for one another (kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh), the rabbis teach the value of supporting another person (Pirkei Avot 6:6). The Bible includes a story of a special friendship between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. When faced with struggles, Ruth urges her daughters-in-law to turn back to their own land, their own people, and their own gods. But Ruth refuses, saying to Naomi, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16). Together, Ruth and Naomi confront many difficulties but are able to overcome them, because they support each other, exemplifying the middah nosei b’ol im chaveiro.

לפני עיוור – Lifnei Iver – Before the Blind (Inclusivity) 

The Torah says, “You shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling
block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14). There are many pieces of Jewish teaching that consider the figurative implications of not harming those in vulnerable positions, whether they be do to disabilities (deafness and blindness) or disempowered positions (the widow, the orphan, the stranger). It is our responsibility to do our best to create a community that meets the needs and celebrates the value of everyone. Rather than looking at a disability or mental illness through the lens of handicaps, we can uphold this value by seeking to ensure all individuals are fully able to participate in the community.

תיקון עולם – Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World

Tikkun olam refers to the Jewish value of repairing the world or making the world whole again through acts of social change. It focuses on social justice and communal responsibility—what can we, as human beings, do to make this world a better place? The Torah says, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) From this we pull the idea that all human beings have ownership and accountability to others. Jewish thought also includes the idea that “Any person who works for [the] needs of community, it is as if that person is studying Torah.” (P. Tal., Berachot 5:1) Building our community is therefore a mitzvah when done to help meet the needs o all those who belong to it.

Jewish thought has taken this idea a step further with tikkun hanefesh, repairing the soul. The work of repairing the world begins with repairing the soul. Before we are responsible to others, we are responsible for ourselves. In healing ourselves, we heal the world, and in healing the world, we bring healing into our own lives.