(I’m not going to make excuses for being gone so long. Life happens and things get busy, and that’s not a failing – it’s just a fact.)
Today I want to muse a little bit about the ongoing tension many Jews by choice have with the 613 commandments and the issue of physical and mental health.
I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve had it all my life; it comes with the territory when you’re autistic. One of the ways I’ve dealt with anxiety over the years is to try to impose tight control on my world (which never works) and to try to be as perfect as possible (which also never works). And I know I’m not the only Jew out there who fits the “neurotic” stereotype, okay?
One of the things that’s helped me deal with this terror – and sometimes it is terrifying – of not being perfect and not getting every detail right is the advice I got from a rabbi about my conversion: “When someone asks you if you are keeping kosher, or giving tzedakah, or whatever observance they’re interested in, and you’re not doing it yet, just say ‘Not yet, but I’m working on it.’ Because your observance is nobody’s business but your own. Just their asking the question is rude. Feel free to ignore their judgment, because they shouldn’t be judging in the first place.”
Mostly, that’s helped. Knowing my medical issues don’t allow me to keep kosher, and knowing that my anxiety has been keeping me increasingly housebound of late unless I force myself to leave the apartment, allows me to be a little easier on myself.
Am I not trying to be observant? Am I lazy about my observance? Far from it. I observe in the ways I am able to, and if someone thinks I’m not observant “enough,” that’s not my problem. Do I always remember that? No, because I was raised in a tradition where I was expected to be perfect and any lapse meant I was lazy.
(I’m trying to find a way to talk about this issue without “outing” someone, so I’ll do my best not to name any names. Those who might know me and the person in question are hereby cautioned not to name names or give identifying details.)
Long story short, I have a friend who is also a convert, who converted in the Orthodox manner. They also have an anxiety problem and OCD. They recently lost a family member and have been observing shiva, including tearing their clothing, but recently found out that they didn’t tear it “correctly.” (Except I’ve looked, and there are multiple pages with multiple descriptions of what “correctly” means for this particular mitzvah.) And their worries center on being “outed” as a convert among their congregation and having random Jewish strangers tell them they’re not “grieving right.” They also asked why none of their knowledgeable Jewish friends had told them about the right way to tear their garments so that they would be “doing it right.”
I find this very sad, because religion is not supposed to be oppressive, especially when it’s a religion you chose. And when you’re grieving, the last thing you should have to pay attention to is these kinds of details. Isn’t that what shiva is supposed to be about – allowing the bereaved to have time not to deal with the details?
I have seen this friend get very stressed out about things that, to most people, are just details and grace notes. And I worry that their focus on these details is going to cause them harm.
But I also remember being that nervous about my last name (which is definitely not a Jewish-labeled name) or my looks (Western European, mainly Irish) “outing” me as a convert among other Jews. I also remember feeling like I had to qualify any statement I made about my Judaism and my observance with “But I’m just a convert, so…”
I used to say “I’m a Reform Jew,” until a rabbi said to me, “No, you are a Jew who observes in the Reform manner.” And now I just say “I’m a Jew” (because I am), and if someone asks, then I will expand on that by adding the stream I am part of. But it doesn’t have to be out in front anymore.
I used to beat myself up for not doing everything exactly correctly. I used to feel like I was a bad person, a sinner, if I didn’t go to Torah study every Saturday morning and have a full-on Shabbat dinner every Friday night. But anxiety is a real thing, and I finally had to accept that right now, my people-interaction skills are not great. Diabetes is a real thing, and I had to accept that some things (like gluten-free challah) are not safe for me to eat, even if eating them is a mitzvah.
There are 613 commandments that Jews are supposed to follow. (Some can’t be, because we don’t have a Temple anymore, and some are specific to certain groups of Jews – such as the Kohanim – but 613 is the generally accepted number.) That’s a lot of details to keep track of, and I don’t know of anyone who does that perfectly all the time. No one. And a lot of people – like my friend – get very stressed out over trying to do all of them perfectly all the time.
But here’s the thing. I have not yet found anything in the Talmud or Torah that says “put your health at risk to be observant.” In fact, there’s even a doctrine called pikuach nefesh – the preservation of human life – that says that, apart from defaming the name of God or committing murder, you can break any commandment to preserve human life. That means that if a commandment or mitzvah would cause your health to be at risk, you must not follow that commandment.
That includes mental health. It has to, or it doesn’t make any sense.
For example: Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the ill are excused from fasting on fast days, because it would harm their health. However, I read a blog last year from a woman who is battling an eating disorder, whose rabbi told her she is not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur (because it is too likely that fasting will switch her back into her anorexic headspace). That’s a mental health issue, not a physical health issue.
People with anxiety often don’t allow themselves to have bad days, or give themselves adequate self-care. I know. I deal with this every day. And I still have the looming guilt and shame from my abusive Catholic upbringing that makes me worry that if I don’t kiss the mezuzah on my way out of the door, I’m somehow marked as a bad, sinning person.
I was in that space for years. Mostly, I am not in that space anymore. But I am so sorry that my friend still is. And I’m not sure how to help them, because I would have loudly rejected the advice to go easy on myself back in the day. I would have seen pikuach nefesh as an excuse.