Halacha Hoodwinked: How I Recognized OCD in my Religious Life

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to stay out of trouble. I was always a good boy in school, and as much as I could, I tried (and still try) to do the right thing. I even have memories of being nervous when someone else got in trouble during a class in elementary school. This willpower to do the right thing was present in my religious life as well. I took my Talmud Torah (Torah studies) seriously, tried to get to minyan (prayers) on time, and made sure not to speak during davening. I was feeling good about myself.  

Difficulties During my Time Studying in Israel

Things began to change when I started my first year learning in a yeshiva in Israel in 2016. Ideally, yeshiva is a place where one can daven, learn, and enjoy the incredible opportunities to further religious growth with a sense of deep joy and meaning. For me, however, all the davening and learning that I did was accompanied by a nagging sense of self-doubt and guilt. Sure I davened, but I could have had much more kavanah (concentration). Sure I learned, but I could have done a much better job. Did I really need to take that five minute snack break in the middle of morning seder (morning study period)? It’s true that I spent four and half hours in the Bet Midrash (study hall) learning, but I spent too much time talking to my friends, so obviously that seder is considered a failure. I didn’t understand shiur, so that must mean that I’m a failure. And so on and so forth… 

When Rosh Hashanah was right around the corner, I kept a notebook in order to do a proper cheshbon hanefesh (assessment of myself). At the end of the day, I wrote down all the sins I had committed that day. Because that’s what teshuvah (repentance) and Elul are all about, right? I felt horrible about myself, but isn’t that the point?

Escalating Out of Hand

This pattern continued to get worse well into winter zman (winter time study period). On the outside, I was doing fine, functioning, doing everything that I was supposed to be doing, but internally, I was a wreck. It got to the point where everything I did was subjected to the constant criticism of the critic inside me. I felt as though I was a disappointment to my rebbeim (rabbis), a disappointment to the yeshiva, and a disappointment to Hashem. 

Around Purim time, I finally realized the extent of how out-of-control my situation was. I had just finished student guard duty in yeshiva at the end of the Taanit Esther fast day and was thinking about going to eat a little bit in my room before coming to night seder… a few minutes late. No sooner than the plan entered my mind was I attacked by a vicious stream of thoughts. “You call yourself a serious student?? Eating is bittul torah (wasting Torah study time)!! You’re a disgrace to the yeshiva! Hashem is so disappointed in you! You and your eating; how could you be so disgraceful to the Torah?!!”

This was a bit extreme, even for my standards. I called my mother – a psychiatrist – and shared what had just unfolded, as well as all the guilt and shame that I felt about my Avodat Hashem (service to Hashem) throughout the preceding months. She calmly and lovingly suggested that maybe I’m not as bad as I think I am. And that more importantly: I need help. 

So I got help. I learned that what I have is a form of OCD known as “Pure-O”, meaning persistent intrusive thoughts that were causing me great distress. What was so confusing and painful for me was that the thoughts – seeing as they were “religious” in nature – seemed very valid and true. But with the help of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, I was able to regain control, and slowly regain a sense of joy and fulfillment in my Avodat Hashem.

Lessons Learned Over The Course of My Experience

First and foremost, never be afraid to ask for help. As you know, there is a lot of stigma surrounding the world of mental health. But one thing I’ve come to firmly believe is that just as someone with diabetes or an infection needs help, so too someone suffering emotionally needs help as well. There is no weakness involved in wanting to improve your situation. If anything, it is a sign of strength and a demonstration of taking personal responsibility for your well-being.

Secondly, just because a thought may seem to be religious in nature, it does not make it so. A ham sandwich with a hechsher (kosher certification symbol) on it does not make it kosher. To paraphrase the words of the Chassidic Masters, the yetzer harah (evil inclination) can look very “frum” in a tallis and tefillin. But it’s the yetzer harah nonetheless. And a “religious” thought which can cause a person inner turmoil and suffering and damage to his sense of self as a tzelem elokim – a beloved son created in the image of Hashem – is anything but an authentic religious thought. Because in Judaism, “דרכיה דרכי נועם” (Her {The Torah’s} ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful. ) is not just a nice idea – it’s a halachic principle that guides the world of Torah and Mitzvot. Indeed, Judaism, Halacha and Avodat Hashem can be quite challenging. . Sometimes they can be very hard. It’s not fun to get out of bed at 10:30 at night while you’re in your pajamas because you forgot to daven maariv. The Torah may challenge us, but Hashem does not want His children to spend their lives in perpetual, debilitating angst. 

Lastly, I’ve learned that at the core of my being and identity, I am a tzelem elokim – a child of Hashem, created in His image. His love for me is constant and never-ending. And he knows and understands my human limitations. While it is true that we’re constantly called on to improve and perfect ourselves in our character and observance of Mitzvot, we will never be perfect. The goal isn’t to attain perfection but to strive for improvement, one step at a time. There’s a delicate balance that must be attained; striving for more and wanting to grow on the one hand, while at the same time not becoming a tyrant and your own whip-wielding taskmaster. 

All that we need to do, and all we can do, is to try our best.

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Nachum Goldstein
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