Embracing Crazy and Having Hope
There are several points in the year of an American Jewish feminist student that demand a certain degree of self-reflection – Yom Kippur, for example, or the secular new year. Or, as I see now, the last month of school. I began this school year as an ally for people struggling with just about everything, but most passionately for those struggling with mental health issues. Along the way, my own mental health started to take precedence. But activists and Jews are creatures of hope, so when I started to lose hope, it was this dual identity that kept me afloat.
One of the favorite topics of discussion (read: ranting) among us Young Jewish Feminists™ is the wealth of stereotypes that Jewish girls and women face. One that is particularly hurtful is the frequent portrayal of the “neurotic Jew” – Monica Geller of Friends and Paris Geller of Gilmore Girls are examples of this. (Also, “Geller” isn’t the only Jewish last name, what’s up with that?) When a Jewish girl starts talking about mental illness, this is the image that is often called to mind. This is the stigma that exists in general society; so what about in the Jewish community?
As it turns out, Jewish scripture is not overly supportive of mental health issues. According to some contemporary Orthodox voices, those who suffer from mental illness are both sinners, and being punished for their sin – which is, of course, their mental illness. There is also a verse in the book of Genesis that, in its most common interpretation, defines suicide as a sin. Those considered shoteh – or crazy – are traditionally not held to the same religious obligations as other Jews, but are also not traditionally allowed to fulfill lifecycle events such as marriage.
Seems like a fight for us Young Jewish Feminists™, right? But not so fast, we have to consider the stereotypes. Think back to a time you’ve heard a male friend, classmate, or colleague refer to an ex-girlfriend as “crazy.” Think about the high school history books that mention “women’s hysteria.” Won’t linking our movement with the fight for mental health, with the fight for the crazy people, just lower the credibility of our feminist efforts? Do we really want that?
Yes. This isn’t just a Jewish feminist issue; sexism lurks in nearly all conversations about women and mental health – this is also feminist issue in a broader sense.
Why? Not only because women are twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men, or because two-thirds of people suffering from eating disorders in the U.S. are women. Not only because women are three times more likely to be suicidal than men. Because it is a human rights issue, and isn’t that what our fight is really about?
And isn’t that also what Judaism wants us to stand up for? No matter how different their needs are from those of our ideal congregant, their fight is our fight. Caring is our creed, so we must care about mental health issues.
One of the most positive and distinctive qualities of the Jewish community that I have come to know is the understanding that no one should ever have to feel afraid within this community. Our work of repairing a broken world includes making positive changes in our own communities – even if that means searching for new interpretations of our scriptural base.
In the small amounts of time I’ve spent with my synagogue’s rabbinic intern (regarded with a certain degree of skepticism among the older members of our community because she is young and a woman), we’ve discussed several pieces of Jewish scripture that feel wrong to us. She’s taught me that it’s okay to question the text, not only as a temporary teenage struggle with identity, but as a lifelong search for both meaning and justice. I’ve carried this lesson into the rest of my life. Knowing it’s okay to be a mess and to be at war with myself certainly doesn’t make those things any less true, but it does ease some of the anxiety of needing to solve every problem immediately.
We’re a people of hope and justice, after all. More specifically, we carry the hope that, as a result of a long struggle – with G-d, with identity, with society – we will have lives of justice and balance.
So as members of the Jewish Feminist community, let’s talk about mental health. Let’s listen to the stories of the Parises and Monicas and take away the fear of the crazy ones. Believe me, it’s scary enough as it is.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.