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Practicing Religion Without Meaning Makes Depression Worse (Terumah 5780)

Anyone who has grown up in a religious environment is all too familiar with the tension between performing rituals out of route habit versus with deep passion and meaning. 

On the one hand, Judaism is a religion of action. It is not enough simply to believe in something, we are urged to act on our beliefs by performing mitzvot. As we read in last week’s parsha: Na’aseh Ve’nishma - we will do and then we will understand. 

On the other hand, another famous quote from our Sages says:  -  רַחֲמָנָא לִבָּא בָּעֵי - God wants your heart.[1] Which means that we shouldn’t perform our religion in a perfunctory manner, but rather with intent and emotional connection. 

This idea is also reinforced in this week’s parsha, parshat Terumah, in the introductory pasuk: 

כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי 

Accept contributions [only] from every person who gives with a willing heart 

Hashem tells Moshe to only accept donations to the Temple from people who wish to give voluntarily. Similarly, another famous pasuk shortly after says:

 וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם 

Make me a Temple so I can dwell within you. 

Many commentaries emphasize the notion that we have to ‘make space’ in our hearts for Godliness to encapsulate our essence. In other words, we should infuse our lives with Godliness by engaging our thoughts, feelings and actions in mitzvot. In that way, we are creating a ‘Temple’ for God to dwell within us. 

So what happens when outwardly observant people follow religious practice without truly believing or connecting to the meaning behind the law? A longitudinal study of 160 Jewish individuals with diagnosed mood disorders (i.e. depression and bipolar disorder) was published in 2018. The participants were asked to rate their intrinsic religious attitudes (e.g. “In my life, I experience the presence of the Divine (i.e., God)”) and their religious practices (e.g. attending prayer services, studying religious texts) every six months over a three year span.[2] 

The study found that individuals who reported high levels of religious practice, but low levels of intrinsic religious attitudes were more likely to become more depressed over time. Conversely, individuals who reported high levels of intrinsic religious attitudes and practice, were more likely to see a reduction in their depression symptoms over time. 

The results show that positive religious beliefs among observant Jews serve as a protective factor against depression, and a lack of a meaningful, religious connection is a risk factor for greater depression. 

The main takeaway here is that there is a significant connection between religious beliefs and mental health. Therefore, observant Jews who suffer with depression can benefit from treatment which also works on improving their relationship with God. 

May God bless us with the ability to continuously strengthen our internal and external connection to the Divine. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Saul Haimoff, PsyD

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[1] See Zohar, Ki Teitzei, 281:; Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106b 

[2] Pirutinsky, S., & Rosmarin, D. H. (2018). Protective and harmful effects of religious practice on depression among Jewish individuals with mood disorders. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(4), 601-609.

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