Is being religious good for your mental health? Many psychologists, starting with Freud and continuing to some extent to psychologists working during the last part of the 20th century, believed that religion was antithetical to mental health. Some therapists even went so far as to challenge their patients’ religious beliefs for the purpose of increased well-being. However, as a result of increased cultural sensitivities and robust scientific research, the field has shifted its perspective. While certain types of religious beliefs have been identified as negatively impacting mental health, for the most part, religious beliefs are actually connected to increased mental well-being.
In a very recent application of this idea, Dr. Steven Pirutinsky, Aaron Cherniak, and Dr. David Rosmarin published an article this week entitled “COVID-19, Mental Health, and Religious Coping Among American Orthodox Jews,” in the Journal of Religion and Mental Health. Their research indicates that religion, particularly, positive coping (using religion to facilitate problem-solving), intrinsic religiosity (valuing religion in of itself), and having trust in G-d, all played a crucial role for many Orthodox Jews in decreasing stress and adapting well to the challenges of Covid-19.
There is a law described in Parshat Vaetchanan, in which someone who kills another by accident flees to a city of refuge for protection. There is a fascinating addition to the law presented in the Talmud: if a student is forced into exile, his teacher must go into exile with him. This requirement is based on the verse that states that the person who kills unintentionally “shall flee to one of these cities and live” (Devarim 4:22). While the simple read of the verse is that escaping to the city protects the physical life of the person, the Talmud understands the word “va-chai” – “and live” – as referencing more than just physical life, but rather, a flourishing life. For that, he needs his teacher to teach him Torah.
In another use of the word “live,” Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael to observe all of the laws so “that you may live to enter and occupy the land that Hashem, the God of your fathers, is giving you (Devarim 4:1). The commentators are bothered by the word “live” in the verse, as it could be understood just as well absent the word live: “observe the laws so you may enter the land.” Ibn Ezra explains that “live” in the verse references physically living – keep the laws, or you will not survive. However, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, better known as the Netziv, disagrees with Ibn Ezra on empirical grounds: plenty of people don’t keep the laws and don’t physically die as a consequence.
Rather, life doesn’t just mean physical living. Life means to flourish. “Life” implies a “full life, a happy and meaningful life, replete with the delight one experiences with the achievement of spiritual wholeness” (translation from Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb). The Netziv makes the same point in Parshat Acharei-Mot (Vayikra 18:5), where the verse states that we should follow the laws – “va-chai bahem” – “and live through them.” Learning and living a life of Torah is supposed to lead to psychological flourishing and general well-being.
If done correctly, living a life infused with G-d and Torah is good for our mental health. Our religious and spiritual ideals are meant to provide support for us during challenging times, guiding us to lives of happiness and meaning. While the psychological literature has been catching up to this idea in recent years, its roots are embedded within the “life” of the Torah.