Rabbi Boteach showed no sensitivity to mental illness

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It is distressing when a community leader dismisses a potentially mentally ill person with such terms as “schizoid,” “spiritless hominid,” and “diabolical fiend.”

In his op-ed “Struggling to come to grips with intra-community savagery” (j., July 22), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach offers these as descriptions of Levi Aaron, the accused murderer of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn. But Boteach’s words serve to marginalize rather than foster a critical and overdue communal dialogue about mental illness issues.

In light of Boteach’s opinions, it is important to clarify Jewish legal attitudes toward mental illness and, secondly, to address our own possible moral obligations toward those suffering from this condition.

It should be stated that we do not know Mr. Aron’s mental status, though there are some indications, reported through the media, that he may be an individual who suffers from a form of cognitive disability.

In fact, precisely because his mental status is an open question, Jewish legal sources, or halachah, require a process of evaluation before a final legal judgment is rendered. As in the American legal system, Jewish law recognizes a difference between criminal acts committed with a competent mind and those committed by someone who is quite possibly mentally ill. This is a fact overlooked by Boteach.

As part of the process of Jewish judicial examination, judges are advised in Moses Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah” to assess whether an individual is a shoteh, or insane person. It also recommends that in a process of legal discernment, judges become familiar with all relevant sciences as well as with credible and even discredited disciplines in order to know what is valid evidence for rendering appropriate decisions. Should a person be found mentally ill or incompetent, the Mishnah and Talmud ascribe limited or no legal responsibility to the shoteh.

Nevertheless, Boteach writes that “one can only pray he [Aron] is mad” and concludes his piece by tacitly suggesting the accused killer commit suicide.

Boteach makes no mention of the Jewish legal sensibility concerning due process and regard for mental condition. In fact, Boteach seems to support an opposite position by expressing the hope that the accused is mentally ill and that he kill himself.

Jewish sources do not recommend suicide as an appropriate alternative to normal legal procedure, and outside of isolated incidents involving martyrdom, suicide is usually not condoned in a Jewish communal context.

Further, aside from the legal considerations, the absolutist language and kind of argumentation employed by Boteach are also particularly disturbing. He claims that “we’ll never understand a mind like Levi Aron. Nor should we try … He is not human anyway.” This reasoning is potentially circular and leads to a harmful conclusion: Since we should not try, we will indeed never understand this kind of mind. There is, in fact, an array of powerful evaluative tools and practices which helps us to understand mental illness, precisely because we have probed the minds of individuals who are afflicted. As a result, sometimes their conditions can even be treated and controlled.

Despite Boteach’s explicit statements to the contrary, Levi Aron is human and, as far as we know, Jewish. To assert that he is something other than that is to not face the problem.

Denying that mental suffering is part of the human and Jewish experience means that we cannot then tend to it. Our moral obligation is to own and acknowledge that mental illness is a part of our community, even when it manifests in the most awful of circumstances.

Maimonides, a physician and philosopher, employed a medical model when regarding a diseased mind, but also noted that the person’s soul needs to be considered: “Should one’s soul be ill, one should proceed in the same manner as one would proceed in the treatment of ills of the body.”

From this perspective, it is not that the person has no soul, but that the soul is distressed.

Mental illness is a common part of the human condition. About 23 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 18 is affected at some point in their lives, and it occurs, according to studies, in higher than average numbers in the Jewish community.

Levi Aron may well be among many in our community who is impacted by this illness. One can only hope that the kind of radical dismissiveness suggested by Boteach does not contribute to ignoring preventive opportunities that could serve others and save lives.

Rabbi Jon Sommer lives in San Mateo and works with the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, offering spiritual care to people who are ill, dying, bereaved or living with mental illness. He is a doctoral student at the Center for Jewish Studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Rabbi Jon Sommer
Rabbi Jon Sommer

Rabbi Jon Sommer provided counseling and support for 17 years through the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. He is currently a local grief and pastoral counselor in private practice.