Ask the Rabbis: Does Jewish anxiety have a theological basis?

By | Jan 02, 2013


Anxiety is a universal human malady that strikes when we find ourselves at the crossroads of choice-making, equipped with several hefty wagonloads of relativities and barely a handful of absolutes.  It was not into the light of clarity that Moses journeyed for his encounter with God, but into the Great Cloud of Obscurity.  There he received two chunks of rock etched with divine absolutes. But by the time he returned to camp, the batteries had worn out, and the divine absolutes became an endless stream of possible interpretations and applications that continue to perplex us to this day. We live in the misty chasm of the most oft-repeated word in the Torah: “And.” It is in the struggle with the “and” that we grow; in grappling with the faded boundaries between clear and unclear, we unfold our deepest selves.

Anxiety seems to be more of a Jewish thing, not because non-Jews are less anxious, but because Jews are more likely to overtly dramatize their anxiety. As it is written: “Oy, I’m so thirsty! Oy, was I thirsty!”  And why that is so is a whole other discussion.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

Walking Stick Foundation

Thousand Oaks, CA



An old story tells how God shopped around the Torah from one nation to another before finally giving it to the Israelites.  God first went to the tribe of Esau.  They asked, “What is in the Torah?” When told that one of the commandments was “Thou shalt not murder,” they turned God down. “We couldn’t take on that rule,” they said. “We live by our sword.”  And on it went, from one people to another. Each refused it for one reason or another.

Frustrated, God decided to take a different approach with the Israelites.  Rather than give the people a chance to find out what was inside, God lifted up Mt. Sinai over their heads and said, “Will you take my Torah? If not, I’ll drop the mountain on you.” Immediately the people said, “We accept.” And in that moment, Jewish anxiety was born—and subsequently passed down, like alcoholism in a dysfunctional family, from generation to generation.  God was scary and intimidating.  Obey or else.

Secular Jews have broken this pattern.  We have freed ourselves from fear of a bullying God.  But that doesn’t mean we are freed of anxiety.  One doesn’t need to believe in a supernatural deity to know that the world will always be a very frightening place.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer

The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

New York, NY



We have plenty to worry about, as history and headlines show.  But as our profoundly practical tradition views it, worrying is unhelpful, unproductive and disempowering.  This type of Jewish anxiety is “bad for the Jews.”  Rather than worry, we should do our best, pray and make positive change. Judaism celebrates constructive action over thought, especially wasted thought. Mel Brooks’s hilarious Hitchcock parody High Anxiety is very Jewish, yes, but so is Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who says, “The whole world is a narrow bridge—the main thing is, don’t fear.”

A different anxiety, however, is justifiably Jewish and totally theological: anxiety as anticipation, as desire. Abraham Joshua Heschel imagines God searching after us, “anxious” that we do the right thing. Mordecai Kaplan is anxious that we be godly, which entails living up to our full potential and connecting deeply with the Jewish community. Judith Plaskow is anxious that our notions of God, Torah and Israel be thoroughly reconstructed in egalitarian, feminist ways.

We should be extremely anxious—anxious to do what’s Divine, to help repair the world.  Jews across the ages have wondered when they’ll witness, and how they’ll help bring about, a messianic era. That’s some worthy, theologically laden high anxiety!

Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation

Bethesda, MD



Anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease—caused, existentialist philosophers say, by the responsibility of freedom.

The Jewish texts we know best linger on descriptions of anxiety. The Torah’s most famous story about early human beings narrates their discovery of “knowledge of good and evil.” Newfound responsibility brings them pain, struggle and a ticket out of paradise. Yom Kippur’s most famous prayer, Kol Nidre, assumes our future failure. The holiday’s second most famous prayer says, “For the wrongs we have committed in Your presence, God…remember that we are dust.” No wonder Jews feel anxious! Surely, we think, our freedom can only end badly.

But these are only entry-level teachings. We should ask ourselves, “If anxiety is so unsettling, how can we move beyond it to find inner peace?” Jewish theology does just that.  The Talmud teaches us to find goodness even in imperfection. Kabbalistic philosophy shows us how to identify and transform stray sparks of divine energy in our lives. Hasidic texts explain how to find inner freedom through faith. And the Shabbat morning prayer book invites us to refocus once in a while on nature, love, light and redemption.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan

Or Shalom Synagogue

Vancouver, BC



Moses: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

(Exodus 3:11)

Esther: “All the king’s courtiers…know that if any person enters the king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.” (Esther 4:11)

As God’s partners in perfecting the world, we strive toward doing what is right. Moses and Esther were both chosen for daunting tasks. They questioned themselves and their ability to succeed. Nevertheless, they knew that what they were doing was right. They were understandably anxious.

We, too, want to want to do what is right, do well, work toward good. Yet we are human beings. We are fallible. We have doubts. That leads to anxiety.

Should we attribute that doubt and nervousness to our Jewishness? No. Anxiety surfaces out of our God-given gift of free will.  As conscious and conscientious human beings, we all face potential anxiety about our work, about how we are perceived, about our capacities. When we experience those feelings, we are witnessing the struggle between our yetzer tov (inclination to do good) and yetzer hara (evil inclination). The two are in constant tension, pushing and pulling at us.  Anxiety is the expression of our fight to choose to do what is right and our worry about not reaching that goal.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

Fresno, CA



Anxiety is both a universal emotion and a clinical condition. The Torah recounts numerous examples of anxiety as a universal emotion. For example, Parshat Vayishlach describes a sleepless night for Jacob. He has been away from the land of Israel and estranged from his parents for 20 years. God has told Jacob that it is time to return, but it is very difficult for him to contemplate doing so. Jacob left home in a panic with a stolen birthright. He and his brother have never reconciled. The anxiety that makes him sleepless is normal.

It is only since Sigmund Freud that anxiety has become medicalized as a clinical condition.  And for unexplained reasons, some American Jewish writers seem to relish creating Jewish characters who suffer from a particularly debilitating form of it. Consider Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, the son of doting Newark Jews, raging to his analyst about his inability to reconcile his id and his superego.  The Coen brothers’ Barton Fink is a nebbish idealist with a paralyzed will, nightmarishly unnerved by the conflict between his artistic ambitions and the vulgarity of Hollywood.  And of course, Woody Allen exploits clinical anxiety in almost all of his movies. I have never understood why Roth, Allen and the Coen brothers choose to represent Jews as clinically anxious when the emotion is a universal one.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz

Temple Beth El

Springfield, MA



Jewish religion teaches that finite human existence is part of a continuum in which Infinite Being (God) and spirit also exist. The finite human cannot really grasp the true nature of the Infinite God.  Yet they are deeply connected and lovingly related. How to do justice to both? This tension is at the heart of the religious life and is a source of great and constant anxiety. Yet Judaism refuses to end the dissonance and thus reduce the anxiety. It neither teaches that mortal existence is an illusion to be transcended (as Buddhism and Hinduism do) nor declares that the spiritual/infinite is an illusion (as modern materialism does).

Another source of anxiety: Judaism teaches that the world will be perfected and that every life action must be reshaped toward that ultimate goal. Yet Jewish law also demands respect for life and the world as it is.  Changes should be incremental. One may not ride roughshod over people or the status quo. So Jews are constantly torn between revolutionary impulses and conservative behaviors.  While some Jews cut the tension by coming down on one side or the other, most live in the tension between the two poles.

Jewry—the people of Israel—is defined in the Torah as the people “who wrestle [constantly] with God and with people” (Genesis 32:29).  And although Jacob was assured that Israel will prevail, after 4,000 years there is still no relief.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Riverdale, NY



Jewish anxiety results from the competing forces that have always acted upon the Jew. Since Abraham said, “I am both an alien and a resident among you,” the Jew has experienced an inescapable dualism. On the one hand, we are the most influential nation that has ever lived, delivering to the world its God, its commandments and its belief that all human life is equal and of infinite value. On the other hand, we are perennial outsiders, shunned and misunderstood, vilified and ostracized. Two of the most creative modern Jews, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, were the toast of Austrian-German civilization and later found themselves displaced by Hitler.

But Jewish dualism has a theological as well as a cultural and anthropological basis. The Jewish soul is granted no spiritual rest. Congenitally and by virtue of his historical spiritual immersion, the Jew seeks to better the world, to correct injustice, to make meaning of a broken world and to piece together its seemingly incoherent parts.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Englewood, NJ



Would you argue with me if I said that the entertainment industry has made money off the African-American community by misrepresenting American ghetto life?  That when you mimic a culture in film and in music, then export that perverted version, you damage that culture? Might you actually convince a generation of kids that their culture is the grotesque image you are selling? Then, when people accuse you of selling misery, you can reply that you are only representing reality. Sort of a self-perpetuating cycle, isn’t it?

The same thing was done to the Jews. We helped sell the stereotype of the neurotic, hypochondriac, self-absorbed Jew. Many of us made a living at it. But what price was paid by the grandchildren of the authors, comedians and actors who sold the world this shtick? The price is that many of us now believe it. And we lack the cultural context to understand the grain of truth that was distorted into a twisted image of what Jewish life is and was.

You don’t survive thousands of years of exile by being a kvetch. Our history is full of bitter moments, but it did not make us bitter. We wouldn’t still be here proclaiming our identity if we were the sad lot that many of us think it’s cute to pretend we are. The world is full of believers; but Jewish faith is special. It is the faith to carry on, to be strong, even to laugh, in the face of adversity.

Rabbi Shais Taub

Pittsburgh, PA

2 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis: Does Jewish anxiety have a theological basis?

  1. dschreib says:

    Anxiety is hard wired into the grand and complex design of human physiology as a protective function, insurance that we will be mobilized to survive. When we perceive a threat, our biological imperative sends us down fright’s road and we sacrifice some of our seichel. The Torah of Beshellach is a good example of how theology invites the Israelites who are seemingly without options to switch from a highly anxious mode into a mindset for moving through a highly adverse situation.

    The acutely victimized Israelites were instructed to “hold their peace”. Easier said than done in a challenging moment, but the invitation is found throughout the Bible to see or experience God as a Nurturing Protector, a Sheltering Presence, an Un-tangler of Knots, or a Deep Wellspring of Resiliency. The biblical narrative tells us our perceptions can shift from feeling victimized in the uncertainty of a moment to a mind more capable of partnering with God. Neurobiologists are now telling us that deep spiritual practices are methods to “hold our peace”. Those methodologies that focus our mind on higher possibilities release our bodies from the bondage of misguided fear, allowing us to be a non-anxious presence. With practice, the path to peace is easier to attain and, so too, it is easier to perceive a real threat from a perceived one.

    Rabbi Dale Schreiber, MA, BCC
    Jewish Care Coordinator
    Oncology Chaplain
    Spiritual Care Service
    Barnes-Jewish Hospital
    St. Louis, MO.

  2. h. gottlieb says:

    took much rabbi asking…. try something new THINK FOR YOURSELF

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