I was hit by a thought today that surprised me.  Since blogging on WordPress, I have come across a lot of Christian mental health blogs.  Sometimes there’s a kind of conversion narrative of a fall from the world into a pit of suffering and despair (this is particularly the case when substance abuse features in the narrative), followed by the turn to religion and the feeling of grace and salvation, which leads to renewed success (if that’s the right word) in the battle with mental illness or addiction.

The surprising thing is that this kind of writing does not really exist in post-Biblical Judaism at all.  I mean very deeply personal introspection of the long, dark night of the soul and the religious journey from suffering to redemption.  Judaism is a non-missionary religion and the vast majority of Jews were born Jewish even if they did not have a religious upbringing, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there are so few literal conversion narrative, but there could be narratives of suffering and despair leading to faith and joy, but by and large there are not.

There are Tehillim and Iyov (Psalms and Job) in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  In post-biblical literature there are some of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s teachings that deal (directly or indirectly with his suffering).  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik deals a little with this in The Lonely Man of Faith and parts of Halakhic Man .  There are bits in the Sacred Fire of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe where he approaches this, but his focus is not so much the personal journey as the communal experience of Nazi persecution.

I am not familiar enough with the Holocaust literature to see how that fits in.  I think you might find something there, but not quite the same as the Christian type, not least because of the presence of clear villain figures in the Nazis, not to mention the fact that many Jews lost their faith in the Holocaust rather than finding it.  I’m not sure that I would class the writings of Elie Wiesel, for example, in this category.  I don’t think it is really that personal, inner type of despair, rather the despair from being dehumanised by an outside force.

I don’t know the Medieval poetry of the paytanim (liturgical poets) to know whether they dealt with these feelings.  Possibly they did (they did right rather erotic love poetry, something airbrushed out of the biographies of some major figures).

I have a few Judaism and depression books which include personal narratives.  The Road to Resilience by Sherri Mendell is a fairly practical book about overcoming loss.  I remember very little of Healing from Despair by Elie Kaplan Spitz, although it probably is the closest to what I’m looking for, in that it deals with the author’s despair in detail (but by a Reform rabbi, not an Orthodox one, tellingly).  It might be worth me re-reading that soon.  Some of the personal stories in the anthology book Calling Out to You edited by Tehilla Edelman fit in this category at least partially, but as I recall the focus is more on the practical story of mental illness and recovery than the spiritual crisis.  Some are definitely what I have in mind e.g. “I had to unravel all of my preconceived notions about Hashem.  I used to think that G-d only loved me if I behaved.  The idea that Hashem loves me like a father didn’t work for me, because with a father like mine [abusive] it didn’t mean much.  I also didn’t understand how Hashem could let abuse happen to children, and I didn’t know if I could ever trust Him…  After much soul-searching, I came to believe that Hashem does care about me and that it doesn’t matter if I can’t call Him Father.” (From My Journey to Hashem through Depression and Addiction: Miriam’s Story in Calling Out to You.)

That’s about all I can think of, in a three thousand year tradition.

It’s worth comparing with the narratives I’ve seen written by people who became Orthodox Jews in adulthood, either non-Jews who converted to Judaism or ba’alei teshuva, non-religious Jews who became Orthodox.  These seem to be largely calm and peaceful narratives that start by laying out the writer’s initial antipathy to and/or ignorance of Orthodox Judaism, the story of how they encountered it close up for the first time, their experience of the beauty of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) and how they overcame a few sticking points (e.g. Torah/science conflict or gender and sexuality issues) to become devout Orthodox Jews.  There is occasionally tension with friends or family members who do not like the religious change, but there is no sense of suffering or trauma here, the dark night of the soul to which religion is the solution.  The truth is that if I was writing my own ba’al teshuva narrative, it would also be largely separate from my mental health journey, which did not really start in earnest until I was some way along my religious journey.

It’s just interesting that we don’t really have the vocabulary to express this kind of narrative.  I am experiencing that first-hand, in the difficulty I have expressing my inner religious life here and, fictionalised, in my novel.  I do not have a model to use.  It’s doubtful how much anyone could model themselves on Tehillim (Psalms) nowadays without falling into self-parody, let alone the difficult, complex poetry of Iyov (Job).  But there are few more recent models to look to.

I wonder if this is another reason why “leaving Orthodoxy” narratives, fictional and non-fictional, are so much more common than “joining Orthodoxy” narratives, as I have discussed here before.  It’s not really a genre that we promote (not that Orthodox Judaism encourages the writing of fiction or memoirs, or creative writing generally).

Doubtless part of the reason is that Christianity is a religion based on the personal salvation of the individual through the personal sacrifice of Jesus and mediated through the introspective writings of Paul in the New Testament.  Whereas Judaism is a communal/national religion based, at the very least, on creating communities based on love and mutual aid, building together to a nation state built, ideally, on love and compassion and eventually an example for a new world order built on love and compassion through monotheism.  There isn’t much room in that narrative for the individual’s long dark night of the soul.  It’s just not relevant.  It took some fairly unique circumstances to produce figures like Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav or Rav Soloveitchik who can let us peek a little at what a kind of Jewish dark night of the soul literature might look like.

***

As for Yom Tov (the festival), it was OK, but I struggled to connect with the religious ideals of the festival (hence, in part, this post).  I prayed a lot, studied Torah a lot, ate a lot, slept a lot.  I had a lot of aches and pains from my workout on Wednesday.  I think I’ve pulled a lot of muscles in my arms, legs and torso.  I did still go for a couple of walks despite the pain.  I also woke up in the middle night with a migraine yesterday.  My mood was mostly OK, but dipped a bit this afternoon.  That’s about all there is to report, though, aside from continued irritation at the illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next door.  I think I’m getting a better idea of why that annoys me so much (aside from all the obvious reasons), but it’s too late to deal with that now and this is a long enough post already.

9 thoughts on “The Long Dark Night of the Soul

  1. I don’t know any background around the development of evangelicalism, but it seems like they’ve really run with the grace and salvation narrative. I find the whole born again idea rather puzzling, personally.

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  2. I always think of Judaism as a religion, culture and identity that one is born into, rather than Christian denominations which are adopted, then often changed when people get fed up with one church or a certain minister, etc. I’ve done quite a lot of genealogy, and when people share their genetic make-up, there is a designation for specific types of Jews, whereas there is no such thing as Christian DNA.

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  3. I think it’s important to recognize that Christianity grew out of Judaism and that Christ was a Jew who upheld the Jewish law. As Christ himself said “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it.” (Matthew 5:17). For the Christian the New Testament fulfils the Old, it does not do away with it.

    I have thought a lot about your question as to why there are so many Christian mental health blogs and few Jewish. I would think this may be because of the peculiarly Christian concept of Grace (i.e. God’s undeserved favour). As you say, Judaism is not a missionary religion, Christianity is. People tend to turn to it when they are at their most desperate, when there is no where else to turn, and when they realise, with great relief, that being made right with God is nothing to do with following a set of rules or being a good person (the Law) but entirely to do with Grace, God’s free gift of salvation, through the Cross. And this is open to all. Hence Christianity has a lot to say to those who are suffering mentally and physically. I would go as far as to say that it is the only faith that specifically targets the marginalised and the downtrodden – as we know Jesus did when he was alive. As he said when accused by the Pharisees of associating with undesirables: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

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  4. It has been incredibly strange coming from fundamentalist Christianity to Judaism. There are many things I wish my rabbi could have told me about things like this that would have helped me make a transition better, but it’s almost as if it would have to be a rabbi that converted to Judaism to understand the way both *feel*. Even things like the way a Christian relates to a minister/pastor vs the way a Jew relates to a rabbi is different. These are things I haven’t really seen written about enough from the inside.

    One of the problems with Christianity for me is that there is much emotionalism involved in many of the churches/denominations. That narrative of the downtrodden, sinful person who was broken and had this tremendous burden but was rescued from it and is now peaceful, personally connected to Jesus, with an indwelling Holy Spirit that comforts you sounds and feels wonderful at first when you have a “salvation experience.” The problem is, for people with mental health, those are feelings that dissipate, and when you find yourself later not having that same peace and having continued issues with mental illness, you can feel very lost and wonder why you don’t have this thing that other people claim you should have. So then it easily turns to self-blame: Did I not really get saved? Why don’t I have “peace that passes all understanding?” and endless questions like these. For a person with religious OCD, it can be very disturbing and upsetting–and often made worse by people who will then tell you that it’s sin in your heart that is causing your bad feelings.

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    1. That’s very interesting. I guess there are not many people coming from fundamentalist Christianity to Judaism to make this clear.

      I can see why that experience would be difficult for someone with mental health issues and religious OCD.

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  5. I love how nuanced the Psalms are. There is definitely hope in there, even in “darker” Psalms like 42 and 43. But there’s a recognition that in this life at least, the darkness isn’t guaranteed to lift. Psalm 88 is the darkest example- it might start out with a confession of God as the one who saves the Psalmist, but it closes with the declaration that the darkness is his closest companion.

    As a Christian myself, I guess I buy into the whole redemption narrative. But it’s not (or shouldn’t be) just an individualistic thing- it’s about Gentiles being grafted into spiritual Israel through faith in the Jewish Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, the self professed Light of the world.

    Thank you for your post.

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