Is being religious good for your mental health? Many psychologists, starting with Freud and continuing to some extent with psychologists in the latter part of the 20th century, believed religion was antithetical to mental health. Some therapists even went so far as to challenge their patients’ religious beliefs out of a desire to improve their 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, religion for the most part is now actually connected to increased mental well-being.
In this connection, 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 solve problems), intrinsic religiosity (valuing religion in of itself), and trust in G-d – played a crucial role for many Orthodox Jews in decreasing stress and helping them adapt to the challenges of Covid-19.
In Parshat Vaetchanan, we learn that someone who kills another by accident must flee to a city of refuge for protection. The Talmud contains a fascinating addition to this law: If a student is forced into exile, his teacher must go with him.
This requirement is based on Devarim 4:22, which states that a person who kills unintentionally “shall flee to one of these cities and live.” While the simple meaning of this verse is that escaping to the city protects the physical life of the person, the Talmud understands the word “va’chai – and live” to mean a flourishing life. And for that, a student needs his teacher to teach him Torah.
In another use of the word “live,” Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael to observe all the laws so “that you may live to enter and occupy the land that Hashem, the G-d 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 without it. It could read “…observe the laws so you may enter the land.” So why include the word “live”?
The Ibn Ezra explains that “live” in this 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 die as a result.
So he explains that “live” doesn’t just mean physical living. “Live” means flourishing. “Live” 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 Torah says 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 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 (finally) been voicing this idea in recent years, its roots are embedded within the “life” of the Torah.