One of the great challenges in the sphere of religious behavior and personal autonomy is how much effort is appropriate versus trusting and relying on God.  What is controlling and arrogant?  What is too passive and trusting?  In today’s daf, we will examine some classic Jewish thought on the matter, as well as discuss some of the psychology of anxiety and religion.

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph makes the famous declaration, “All is in the hands of heaven, except for cold and heat.” The simple peshat (see Rashi and Tosafos) is that when it comes to exposure to excessive cold and heat which can make a person ill, there is usually choice and care can be taken to avoid it. Thus if a person becomes ill due to this exposure, it is not a divine decree, but rather it is negligence.

Akeidas Yitschok (90:1) meditates on this idea of human intervention and effort.  He wonders, how could the Torah have commandments that ask of us to love God, to remember commandments, and to not be afraid of enemies.  Is this not in the realm of emotions and other mental process which are not under voluntary conscious control? His answer is that humans constantly seek to enhance their conditions.  If a man cannot see well, he gets glasses.  If a man cannot remember well, he works on techniques to strengthen his memory and ability to recall information. Athletes and artists will work relentlessly to hone their skills.  Thus, the Torah does not ask one to do the impossible, to feel what cannot be felt, to avoid fears that cannot be dismissed or to remember what cannot be recalled.  Rather, the Torah asks of the person to develop the skills, attitudes and mindset that eventually leads to healthier thoughts, less fears and more devotion to God.  No quick fixes, nor obligations to quickly fix.

Mesilas Yesharim (9) sets guidelines for what we would call neurotic and controlling fears versus reasonable caution:

שמא תאמר הרי מצינו שחייבו חכמים בכל מקום שישמור האדם את עצמו שמירה מעולה ולא ישים עצמו בסכנה אפילו הוא צדיק ובעל מעשים, ואמרו (כתובות ל): הכל בידי שמים חוץ מצינים פחים, ומקרא כתוב (דברים ד): ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם, הרי שאין להחליט הבטחון הזה על כל פנים. והתם אמרו, ואפילו לדבר מצוה.

Perhaps you will say: behold we see that the sages everywhere obligated a man to guard himself well and not put himself in danger even if he is a righteous person with many merits. For instance: "everything is in the hands of heaven except colds and heatstrokes" (Kesuvos 30a) and the Torah says "you shall guard yourselves very carefully" (Devarim 4:15). Hence one should not decide to "trust in G-d" in all situations, and in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 3, see also Chulin 142a) they said: "even when performing a Mitzva!".

דע כי יש יראה ויש יראה: יש יראה ראויה ויש יראה שוטה, יש בטחון ויש הוללות.

Know that there is fear and there is fear. There is justified fear and there is foolish fear. There is trust [in G-d] and there is recklessness.

כי הנה האדון ברוך הוא עשה את האדם בעל שכל נכון וסברא נכוחה לשינהג עצמו על דרך טוב וישמר מן הדברים המזיקים אשר נבראו לענוש את הרשעים.

The L-rd, blessed be He, has made man with sound intellect and clear reasoning in order that he may guide himself in the right way and guard from harmful things which were created to punish the wicked.

ומי שירצה שלא ינהג עצמו בדרך החכמה ויפקיר עצמו לסכנות, הנה אין זה בטחון, אלא הוללות. והנה הוא חוטא במה שהוא נגד רצון הבורא יתברך שמו, שרוצה שישמור האדם את עצמו.

But someone who does not want to guide himself in an intelligent manner and exposes himself to dangers - this is not trust in G-d but rather foolishness. Such a person sins in that he is acting against the will of G-d who desires that a man guard himself.

ונמצא שמלבד הסכנה המוטבעת בדבר אשר הוא עלול אליה מפני חסרון שמירתו, הנה עוד הוא מתחיב בנפשו בקום עשה בחטא אשר הוא חוטא, ונמצא החטא עצמו מביאו ליענש

Hence, besides the inherent danger which he is exposing himself to due to failing to guard himself properly, he also actively brings punishment down upon himself for the sin which he commits. Thus the sin itself is what brings upon him the punishment.

ואולם השמירה הזאת, וזאת היראה המיוסדת על הנהגת החכמה והשכל, היא הראויה, שעליה נאמר (משלי כב): ערום ראה רעה ונסתר ופתיים עברו ונענשו.

The type of fear and guarding of oneself which is appropriate is that which is based on the guidance of wisdom and reason. On this scripture says: "the clever man sees the evil and escapes but the fool continues through and is punished" (Mishlei 22:3).

אך היראה השוטה היא, שיהיה האדם רוצה להוסיף שמירות על שמירות ויראה על יראה, ועושה משמרת למשמרתו באופן שיגיע מזה ביטול לתורה ולעבודה

The foolish fear is when a man wants to add protection upon protection and fear upon fear, devising precautions for his precautions in such a way that this results in neglect of Torah study and divine service.

והכלל להבחין בין שתי היראות הוא מה שחלקו חכמים זכרונם לברכה באמרם (פסחים ח): היכא דשכיח היזיקא שאני.

The general principle to distinguish between the two types of fear is as our sages specified saying: "where harm is likely it is different" (Pesachim 8b).

כי מקום שההיזק מצוי ונודע, יש להשמר. אך מקום שאין ההיזק נודע, אין לירא.

For in a place where harm is likely and foreseeable it is proper to guard oneself. But in a place where there is no known danger one should not fear.

ועל כיוצא בזה נאמר (רש"י חולין מח:) ריעותא דלא חזינן לא מחזקינן, ואין לו לחכם אלא מה שעיניו רואות. הוא עצמו ענין הפסוק שהבאנו למעלה "ערום ראה רעה ונסתר", הא אינו מדבר אלא בנסתר מן הרעה אשר רואה לא ממה שיוכל להיות שיהיה אפשרי שיבוא.

On similar to this the sages said: "we do not assume any defect without cause" (Chulin 56b). And "a judge need be guided only by that which his eyes see" (Bava Basra 131a). This itself is the intent of the verse we brought earlier "the clever man sees the evil and hides himself" (Mishlei 22:3), which states only about escaping from the evil that one can see not of the evil which perhaps, possibly, may occur.

What does current research have to say about the role of religious belief in mitigating anxiety?  In the International Journal of Depression and Anxiety, (“Review of the Effect of Religion on Anxiety”, Vol 2, Issue 2), researchers William C Stewart, MD, Megan J Wetselaar, BA, Lindsay A Nelson, BS and Jeanette A Stewart, RN report the following interesting, but not surprising findings:

 

  • A number of studies have evaluated various treat- ment programs designed to be, at least in part, religiously based. These programs in general have benefited anxiety. Bowland and coworkers evaluated 43 adult US female survivors of interpersonal trauma using an 11-session, spiritually focused intervention. The results showed a strong benefit for the spiritually focused group intervention in older women trauma survivors. The women in the treatment group had significantly lower depressive symptoms, anxiety and physical symp- toms when compared to the control group. These therapeutic gains were still present three months later.
  • Koszycki and associates evaluated 18 Canadian patients who suffered from at least moderate anxiety and assigned them randomly to either 12 sessions of spiritually based intervention or cognitive-behavioral therapy. The study showed that multi-faith spiritually based interventions were effective treatments for general anxiety disorder (GAD) maintained at least up to six months following intervention.
  • David Rosmarin and associates questioned 125 US religious Jews with elevated levels of stress and worry. They were treated in one of three groups: A spiritually integrated treatment program, progressive muscle relaxa- tion, or non-active control. The authors found greater benefits amongst the spiritually integrated treatment program participants with improved stress, worry, depression and intolerance of uncertainty than within the control. (Rosmarin DH, Pargament KI, Pirutinsky S, Mahoney A (2010) A randomized controlled evaluation of a spiritually integrated treatment for subclinical anxiety in the Jewish community, delivered via the Internet. J Anxiety Disord 24: 799-808.)

 

While religion cannot always answer all problems, it is good to see that it offers protective and healing effects for many people, most of the time. (See Guide for the Perplexed III:34 where the Rambam is clear that an individual’s personal psychological or physical nature cannot always be accommodated or improved through Torah prescriptions which are meant to promote general physical and emotional well-being in society as a whole. Also see Psychology of the Daf, Yevamos 17.)

 

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)