Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Reflections on Spirituality and Mental Health A Panel of a Rabbi, Imam and Psychologist at Limmud Oz 2019

“What draws you to this topic?” With this question, our impressive session facilitator, Shirli Kirschner, began our conversation at the Sydney Jewish ideas festival, Limmud Oz. For me,  mental  health is very important as a prerequisite for living my life effectively. I usually start my day with a walk in the forest. Like most people, my work involves stress. In my case, it can feel like I am pushing a boulder up a mountain as I do my work of fostering connections between people of different faiths.

Imam Farhan spoke movingly about a time when he felt deeply depressed after being abruptly fired from his first job as an Imam. He was told right after a controversial sermon to pack his bags and leave the Mosque. The Imam had a double message about faith and mental distress. On the one hand, he insisted that it was ridiculous for members of his community to expect the Imam to deal with everything. It is as ridiculous as expecting the Imam to do heart surgery! On the other hand, Imam Farhan spoke of the solace that faith can bring. He gave the example of the story of Moses, as told in the Islamic tradition (1). In this telling, Moses fled Egypt after he killed an Egyptian taskmaster, who was beating a slave. He sat under a tree and felt desperate, so he cried out to God for assistance. The assistance came quickly with a marriage proposal, a father-in-law and a job for ten years.

Listening to Farhan talk about Moses was delightful. Not just because I really like him and his humour and style. There was a feeling of an additional connection between us as Jews and Muslims by virtue of the fact that we both valued the same story, essentially. In the Torah’s version of this story (2), there is no mention of sitting under the tree, nor of the desperate prayer. However, the idea of Moses feeling emotionally low is expressed in another story in the Torah. In our reading this week, Moses’ beloved father-in-law and mentor left Moses to return home to Midyan (3). After his departure, when faced with complaints by the people, Moses fell into despair to the point of spurning the mission that had been entrusted to him by God (4). He cries out: “Alone, I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me (5).”

Our traditions can bring comfort for people in mental distress. However, they can also be a source of distress. The psychologist on the panel, Professor Amanda Gordon, reflected on her experience of the relationship between faith and grieving. She had long recognised the benefits of traditions of grieving,  such as the practice of Shiva, in which Jewish people will spend seven days at home after the death of a parent, child or sibling. Yet, when it came to her own experience of grieving for her mother, it did not go as conveniently as she might have expected. During the festivals, the Yizkor memorial prayer is read in the Synagogue. For Amanda, who had her first Yizkor this year, it was an alienating experience: she found that the feelings one might expect to feel, could not be activated on demand. Amanda cautioned that the same rituals that bring comfort to some people, can create challenges for others.

Expectations are a source of much sadness. Acceptance can provide us with relief. There are three important elements of acceptance: a) To accept ourselves as we are. A large part of the struggles people experience with mental health is tied up with the question about whether “we are good enough”. Tanya consoles us with the idea that אני לא עשיתי את עצמי - I have not created myself. We cannot blame ourselves for what we are! (6). It is God, who is responsible for our essential nature, not us. b) We need to accept our past mistakes and let go. God has an infinite capacity for forgiveness (7) and if He has forgiven me, I can forgive myself (8). C) A third acceptance relates to work-related stress. We are instructed to rest on the Sabbath, but in six days we should do “all our work” (9). This means that on Friday, when we finish work, we are encouraged to regard our work as complete and avoid thinking about it on the Sabbath (10). Any work not done in the previous week, is irrelevant to the week that passed. It is next week’s work! The psalms said it best: “It is a falsehood for you, early risers, delayers of sleep, eaters of bread of tension! Indeed He [God] will give sleep to those he loves” (11).   

Apart from acceptance, one of the most important elements of well-being, according to Professor Gordon, is connectedness. Imam Fahran talked about the importance of reaching out to people. He gave the example of someone who stops coming to the Mosque. It is important that people check if that person is ok. He linked this with Islamic teachings about the obligations to one’s neighbours, which “...apply to forty houses like this and like this and like this” – and he pointed to the front, to the back, to the right and to the left” (12). The Imam also talked about the alienated young people he worked with as a prison chaplain, and how they can go off in dangerous and violent directions. I shared the experiences young people have in Together For Humanity - experiences that build connectedness, not only between students and their peers, but with the wider community and people of different backgrounds and faiths. In fact, when I asked one Principal what the main benefit of our work was for her students, she said it was developing students’ connectedness.


1.       The Quran, Surah Qasas(28), Verse 22 to 28.
2.       Exodus 2:11-21
3.       Numbers 10:30
4.       Akedat Yitzchak Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, (1420-1494)
5.       Numbers 11:11-15
6.       Tanya chapter 31, see story of the “ugly man” in the Talmud, Taanis 20a&b,
7.       As we say in the Amida prayer. Blessed is God who graciously, forgives in abundance
8.       Tanya chapter 26
9.       Exodus 20:9
10.    Mechilta cited in Rashi
11.    Psalm 127:2
12.    Haddith, Narrated by Sunan Abu Dawood, Hasan Al Basri.

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