Monday, November 2, 2015

A Response to Ami Magazine’s Assertion that an Early Amorah Was Mentally Ill

update: The understanding of Berachos (5b) is the crux of the matter. Here is the Soncino Translation:
R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Johanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room,13 and he bared his arm and light radiated from it.14 Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learnt: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven.15 Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables.16 Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son! — He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty17 that is going to rot in the earth. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept. In the meanwhile he said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? — He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand, and he gave him his hand and he raised him.
I don't see anything there indicating mental illness. Commentaries indicate that he was depressed because of his suffering and his belief that he would soon die. Depression as a realistic reaction to diffcult events is not mental illness. Read this Huffington Post  for examples of clinical depression

However Yungerman below claims that Rav Nachman understands it to be mental illness.


ברכות דף ה: רבי אליעזר חלש, עאל לגביה רבי יוחנן חזי דהוה קא גני בבית אפל, גליה לדרעיה ונפל נהורא. רצה לומר שראה שהתגבר אליו הקטנות והעצבות ומרה שחורה
Was Rabbi Nachman too a reformist? What stupidity and rechilus this article by Hoffman is!

I could not find the source for Yungerman's quote using DBS and Bar Ilan. This citation  apparently is not from Rav Nachman but is claimed to be based on his writings. In fact there is nothing there about mental illness but rather reaction to sin and the proper attitutde to avoid depression from being sinful - that is not mental illness!

It is possible that Rav Nachman is saying that it is mental illness but it could also be understood like the other commentaries that it was a realistic reaction to suffering and impending death. If his understanding of Rav Nachman is correct - then it apparently is the only such comment and it clearly differs from everyone else. Depression as mental illness is independent of events.

The Alshech for example says that Rabbi Eleazar was suffering from yesurim shel ahava which were overwhelming. He didn't want to request that they be removed until Rav Yochanon asked him. The gemora ends with the suffering being removed by Rav Yochanon. Nothing at all to do with mental illness.

Until someone can show an unequivocal commentary that his living in a "dark room" meant that he was depressed independent of what was happening to him (i.e., mentally ill) - then Rabbi Hoffman's criticism stands.

 It is simply accepted universally practice not to give a derogatory interpretation to the actions of a talmid chachom as long as the facts don't strongly indicate such. It is simply not acceptable  that the gemora is simply reporting the actions of a mentally ill person who happens to be an Amora - and thus not relevant for anyone else.
The problem is not in claiming that a great man was susceptible to mental illness - the gemora acknowledges the possiblity. [As noted before Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky had no problem with saying that he thought the Maharasham was senile. His problem was that he realized the fact that he justified this belief was wrong.] The problem is Ami Magazine's claiming that the gemora states that the Amora was in fact mentally ill - when there is absolutely no support from the text or from any commentaries. In fact the only other source for this understanding of the gemora is a Reform rabbi.

Five Towns Jewish Times     By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Generally speaking, we should be open and tolerant of views and interpretations of others that may differ from ours.


Sometimes, however, when we perceive a breach in the Mesorah of the interpretation of a passage in the Talmud and it is presented as fact, it is incumbent upon others to vocalize their dissent. This is particularly true when the misinterpretation has no substantive linguistic indication to that effect within the text.

The essay stated that Rabbi Elazar, of the first generation of Amoraim, was suffering from mental illness. The essay was penned by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the editor of Ami Magazine, whom I generally consider a Talmid Chochom. Nonetheless, the particular essay (issue 237 entitled “A Look Inside Psych Wards”) struck this author as troubling.


Rabbi Frankfurter based this assertion on a passage in Brachos 5b which states as follows:

Rabbi Elazar once became sick. Rabbi Yochanan came to visit him and saw that he was sleeping in a dark room. Whereupon Rabbi Yochanan uncovered his own arm and immediately the room grew light. Rabbi Yochanan then noticed that Rabbi Elazar was weeping. Rabbi Yochanan asked, “Why are you weeping? Is it because you have not learned Torah sufficiently? Behold we are taught, ‘No matter whether one offers much or little – only the intentions of one’s heart counts for the sake of Heaven.’ Is it because you are in need and poor? Not everyone receives a table in the world to come and a table here. Is it because of trouble from your children? Here is a bone from my tenth son. “I weep,” responded Rabbi Elazar for that beauty which will ultimately decay in the earth.” Rabbi Yochanan responded, “For that you really ought to weep.” Both wept together. Rabbi Yochanan then asked of him, “Do you love afflictions?” Rabbi Elazar answered, “Neither them nor their rewards.” “Then give me your hand.” Rabbi Elazar did so and was made well.


Rabbi Frankfurter writes, “It is clear that Rabbi Elazar was suffering on a psychological level from a pall of darkness enveloping his mind, rather than from physical disease.” He bases his interpretation on the fact that Rabbi Yochanan did not ask Rabbi Elazar if the reason he was crying was on account of poor health or physical pain. Rabbi Frankfurter then suggests that Rabbi Yochanan is engaging in “existential psychotherapy” in his discussion with Rabbi Elazar.


There is an unfortunate tendency for people to, at times, get caught up in their mada studies, in their Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Rank philosophies, and then retro-inject them into various Gemorahs and Midrashim that they come across with forced readings. Existentialist psychotherapy is strictly an early 20th century phenomenon. Injecting this type of therapy into the interpretation of a Gemorah with no Meforshim backing it up is anachronistic.

The results are not just incorrect readings of Torah texts, but there are two other repercussions as well: There are grave methodological missteps where, for example, an early Amorah is labelled as someone who is mentally ill; and the traditions of the classical commentators on our texts are entirely ignored. [...]

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