September 13, 2021

What if Simone Biles was to study the Jewish Sources?

by Simon Eder

The recent Olympics produced plenty of moving stories – the Algerian swimmer, Souad Nefissa Cherouati who swam a lonely marathon not to win but simply so that she could say that she did not give up. The moment that runners Isaiah Jewett of the US and Nijel Amos of Botswana fell during the 800 metre race, helped each other up, put their arms around one another and jogged to the finish line together. When, in a show of overwhelming team spirit, Caeleb Dressel tossed over his gold medal for the 4×100 swimming freestyle relay to Brooks Curry in the stands, who had played a significant role in getting the US team into the final. It is these and plenty of other heartfelt moments of sportsmanship that have lifted our spirits during this time. 

There are also a huge array of issues that the Olympics brought to the fore besides those of sportsmanship and perhaps none more important than the subject of mental health, following Simone Biles’ withdrawal from multiple events. Her assertion that: ‘’People have to realise that we are humans; not just entertainment!’’ was a recognition of our common frailty and an acknowledgment that even those who have scaled the very greatest of human achievements are not beyond susceptibility to the vagaries of human nature. 

Were Biles, perhaps the world’s greatest gymnast of all time, to consult Jewish sources for her mental distress – what might they suggest by way of remedy?

Were Biles, perhaps the world’s greatest gymnast of all time, to consult Jewish sources for her mental distress – what might they suggest by way of remedy?

In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature he argues that the Hebrew Bible is a long celebration of violence. What he surely ignores however in his selective analysis is the consistent message of the duty of care that the Bible advocates for one another. This is expressed supremely in the commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”(1). Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is replete with expressions of concern for the most vulnerable members of society including orphans, strangers, the poor, the dispossessed, the bereaved and the disabled. Particularly relevant for our purpose is the injunction in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, ‘’You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind”(2), as well as its positive correlative in the book of Job, when the eponymous hero, against the insistence of his friends that he has only himself to blame for all his sufferings, ironically protests his innocence by saying, “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame”(3). Time and again the biblical exhortations to care for those in need are addressed both to the individual and to society at large. So much for the vision that we are called on to create. What are the individual remedies that Jewish sources might recommend for those in mental distress?

The psalms offer plenty of consolation for those who cry out in prayer. Psalm 34 for instance assures us that “the Lord hears and saves them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, those crushed in spirit He delivers.”(4). It may be that in the very depths of despair, therapeutic prayer is a source of comfort and healing but this approach has never been the only religiously acceptable response to sickness in Judaism. We learn from a critical passage in the Book of Exodus that if a dispute between two people gets physical and one suffers an injury that the other must not only compensate them for any loss of earnings but “shall surely cause (them) to be healed”(5). The Rabbis in commenting on this agree that “From this it follows that the physician is permitted to heal.”(6) God is still the healer, but the physician is God’s agent that humans with ailments are not only permitted but required to seek help from.

It is in a similar vein that plenty of sources speak to the importance of companionship during times of ill health. In a moving story from the Talmud for example, Rabbi Yohanan on falling ill is visited by his student, Rabbi Hanina, who stands him up and restores him to health. Following this the Gemara asks:

Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up. The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.(7) All contemporary insight around the protection of our mental health points to the power of friendship as a crucial element and in this powerful instance the Talmud strongly supports this line.

It may be that in the very depths of despair, therapeutic prayer is a source of comfort and healing but this approach has never been the only religiously acceptable response to sickness in Judaism.

Predating psychoanalytic theory by many centuries the Gemara in commenting on the line in Proverbs: ‘’If there is a care in a man’s heart, let him quash it (yashhena)’’(8) introduces an important debate as to the meaning of the verse between Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi: ‘’One said: He should forcefully push it [yasḥena] out of his mind. One who worries should banish his concerns from his thoughts. And one said: It means he should tell [yesiḥena] others his concerns, which will lower his anxiety.’’(9) Here we have therefore an impassioned plea for the importance of giving voice to deep inner troubles.

It is not only words that the sources advocate in times of impaired mental health. King Saul’s melancholia was relieved by David’s playing of the harp – pointing us to an early example of music therapy in action(10).

We learnt subsequently from Simone Biles that shortly after pulling out of a number of events, she went to Juntendo University in secret accompanied by coaches and doctors to re-learn basic gymnastics gradually and in growing increments each day.

This episode reminded me somewhat tangentially of a Chasidic legend told of the great Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, also known as the Besht, who undertook an urgent and perilous mission: to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people, all humanity were suffering too much, beset by too many evils. They had to be saved, and swiftly. For having tried to meddle with history, the Besht was punished; banished along with his faithful servant to a distant island. In despair, the servant implored his master to exercise his mysterious powers in order to bring them both home.

“Impossible,” the Besht replied. “My powers have been taken from me.”

“Then, please, say a prayer, recite a litany, work a miracle.”

“Impossible,” the master replied, “I have forgotten everything.” They both fell to weeping.

Suddenly the master turned to his servant and asked: “Remind me of a prayer — any prayer.”

“If only I could,” said the servant. “I too have forgotten everything.”

“Everything, absolutely everything?”

“Yes, except the alphabet.”

At that, the Besht cried out joyfully: “Then what are you waiting for? Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat after you…”

And together the two exiled men began to recite, at first in whispers, then more loudly: “Aleph, bet, gimel, dalet…” And over again, each time more vigorously, more fervently; until, ultimately, the Besht regained his powers, having regained his memory.

Albeit in a rather tenuous way, what struck me as to the parallels were that both masters, Biles and the Besht, following their impairments had to begin again with the basics bit by bit and through the power of companionship and of course resilience found their powers restored once again. For Biles, her bronze medal on the balance beam following that time away meant more than any of her previous gold medals in previous years.

1,Lev 19:18
2.Lev 19:14
3.Job 29:15
4.Psalm 24:18-19
5.Exodus 21:19
6.Bava Kamma 85a
7.Berakhot 5b:11-13
8.Proverbs 12:25
9.Yoma 75a
10.1 Samuel 16:23

Simon Eder is Education Director of the Friends of Louis Jacobs. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year about its founding. He studied Theology at The University of Cambridge.