Old Stuff

An article I wrote a while back about depression and competition in the Orthodox Jewish Community. (Reading it over now, certain parts seem overly idealistic, but I think the main idea is still valid):

Competition and depression:
How our community has fostered the development of male depression

Depression has pushed itself to the fore of issues in the mainstream frum community. First, let me define the “Mainstream frum community”. The frum community I am referring to consists of what is known as the Ultra-Orthodox community in the United States. It is centered in Flatbush and Borough Park in Brooklyn, and extends throughout the country to various other settlements of Jews who identify with the Orthodox Jewish and, especially, the Yeshivish movement. Israel and other places may experience similar phenomena but due to my lack of familiarity with them, they are being excluded.
The facts:
Is this another issue-du-jour, or is depression more prevalent among men in the Jewish and Orthodox communities than in other American communities?
Without a doubt, that answer must be yes. Studies, such as one based on analysis of data from the Epidemiological Catchment Program show that Jewish men experience major depression at a rate more than double that of non-Jewish males (13% vs. 5.4%) and that while in the general American population men are half as likely to have major depression as women, in Jewish communities it is statistically equal. [1]
Can this be attributable to factors other than the structure of the Frum community, such as genetics?
This has been posed by some, but it is not a likely possibility. In analyzing the data from the aforementioned Epidemiological Catchment Program, Doctors Itzak Levav and Robert Kohn, two Brown University psychiatrists, found a positive correlation between religious observance and higher rates of depression. [1] Also, although a genetic basis is often theorized during discussions of Jewish male depression, as of yet Jews have not been proven to be more prone to having any of the genetic predispositions positively correlated with major depression. [2]
So, what is the cause of these correlations?
My opinion is that it is the intense competition in our community. High levels of competition have been linked, in numerous studies, to an increase in anxiety, addiction and depression across most age groups and both sexes [3]. There is no question that American culture and schools are achievement oriented. [4] Schools use grades as motivation at every level in elementary school and above, all of which ultimately count for success in school and life. And the drive to succeed is always underlined by an evolutionary truth, namely, there are a certain amount of resources or college spots and beating the other children will get me at them. Parents and teachers accept this and perpetuate it in the children.
External motivations exist throughout college and work years. But this has the effect of having children define themselves based on scholastic and, later, work achievement. When the person fails, they fall apart and view themselves as failures. The extent that the person sees his/her own self-worth tied to their achievement will be the amount of depression they fall into when they don't succeed [4]. In fact, American teenagers classified as high-achievers in school frequently indicate feelings of stress. Conversely, people who perceive social acceptance as being relatively unconditional, as opposed to being determined by success or failure are more likely to exhibit high self-esteem.[5] On page 118 of Alfie Kohn's book “What does it mean to be well-educated?” he quotes Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford as saying the following about American High Schools:
“Many well-known adolescent problems are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents' developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide.” Three fundamental human needs are then spelled out. “When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline; when they need expansive cognitive challenges and opportunities to demonstrate their competence, they experience work focused largely on the memorization of facts.” [4]
The importance of the effect of school on a person's development cannot be underestimated, especially when parents emphasize it's importance so much to their children. Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zichrono livracha, was once asked why he supported prayer in schools, why couldn't the children pray before and then go to school? He answered that a child thinks anything they learn in school is real, while anything else is viewed as fine for home, but not in the real world. He also explained the failure of after-school Talmud Torah programs in America with this argument.
The outcome of all of this is that kids learn to value achievement and winning over learning or spiritual growth. This kind of thinking is the antithesis of Judaism. It is what is called “kochi veotzem yadi asah li es hachail hazeh”- my strength and the work of my hand made me all this wealth. [6]
Unfortunately it has pervaded Jewish society and schools as well. Jews on the one hand are taught to focus on a higher good than ourselves. But when we are also taught that we need to compete against one another, and that we define ourselves based on how well we make out in this world, that Jewish teaching becomes corrupted and can develop into severe neurosis. The fact that racist, antisemitic views were at one point nearly globally accepted has no doubt contributed to the Jewish need to prove ourselves worthy through ostentation and competition. This may be why American Jews are traditionally the most skilled professionals in the workplace (doctors, lawyers), and also among the most neurotic people in the country. [7]
But when you look at the Frum community specifically, it seems we have developed a unique proficiency at cultivating neuroticism. Here, the entire structure of life is built on competition. High school girls and younger are obsessed with looks, as in the surrounding urban-American culture, but also with credentials for seminary and marriage. Everything they do is judged. High school boys are expected to sit and learn the entire day. They must dress only in black and white, with black hats and jackets. This is especially problematic because these practices are seen as being part of Torah observance. If power is measured by the amount of control it exerts over people, then Judaism, because of the stakes involved and the extent to which it dictates guidelines over human activity, can arguably be considered the single most powerful institution in the world. There is a reason that a “Gezeira she'ain ha'tzibur yachol la'amod bo”, is dissolved. Extremely fine judgment must be exercised when instituting new religious practices. Certainly when what is often perceived as religious practice has no Halachic basis.
If one looks at the birth of the Yeshivish movement and it's maturation into today's world, it is almost impossible to deny that it's rapid success is due to anything other than it being Frum society's only answer to outside secular competition. Before Kollelim were started by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zichrono livracha, traditional Orthodox Judaism was looked at as a joke. Even young men who sat in Yeshiva until they were married understood that 'real life' demanded they work in the real world. But when Kollel became a viable option, people realized they could be a success in being a Talmud Chochom. Immediately, young, intelligent men wanted to learn in Yeshiva and go on to Kollel. And the community took pride in these men and supported them. “You see”, they told themselves and their friends, “Modern science and American culture hasn't disproven the beliefs we have held onto for all these years. We aren't intellectually or socially inferior to you. Our young men are forgoing your modern society to study our tradition all day.”
Unfortunately, this has led to the present state of our world, where open discussion about modern ideas, especially science, is always looked at critically and censored. We are scared by outside ideas because our entire identity is built on our own superiority to them. We don't engage thoughts originating outside our comfortable way of life, we deflect them. The people once renowned as the greatest thinkers now live in fear of knowledge. It's a big shame though, if only because in my experience, baalei teshuvah usually cite Judaism's philosophy as what attracted them to it in the first place. [For an extended discussion, see note 8.]
Of course, that doesn't last. The baalei teshuvah come from one competitive, judgmental world into an even more competitive, judgmental one. They struggle to fit in, and pressure their kids to fit in, in order to alleviate their own pronounced feelings of inferiority. Pronounced, because the religion they have accepted rationally judges them to be inferior based on nonsense. Not only do we corrupt ourselves, but instead of being a light unto the nations, we stamp out any true spirituality they may have brought into our people.
This competition is felt mostly in New York where we live so close to the goyim and each other. Not only do we feel competition about money like they do, but we also compete about religious observance. We adopt the latest chumras to show off like they're the latest ipods. And our kids suffer as well. Yeshivish style is entirely external. Bochurim press their shirts or not based on which Yeshiva they're in. Their payos and tzitzis (the Mitzvos people see) are the most machmir shitah. They smoke to establish a Yeshivish identity outside of the modern world. And sadly they drink, because, increasingly, it's a Yeshivishly accepted form of escape from this constant tension. Yeshivos that allow college are only recommended to those boys who have failed following the right way. These, of course, are the boys who stay on the Derech. I needn't mention the escapism demonstrated by an alarming number of our youth who do go off the Derech.
But of course that's not all. Bochurim are forced to stay in Yeshivah and feel like fakers in order to get an acceptable shidduch. And the community blames them for it. They aren't able to go to college to make a parnassah and are forced to scrounge around, sometimes doing halachically questionable things, to make a living. And our girls, who have killed themselves their whole lives to live up to a non-Torah-based, societally-imposed ideal, are either passed up on for younger, better looking girls that the boys can feel good about and show off, or if they get married, have to face a reality of a husband who is much more external than they would like.
And, finally, we come to depression. If we go back to Professor Darling-Hammond's description of basic human needs, we can see certain things that stand out clearly.
The need for close affiliation is subverted by families who over-emphasize competition. Kids learn to view other people as rivals, even enemies. Families lack basic Shalom Bayis because they aren't a cohesive unit at all. They are competing individuals locked in one house, fighting for their own needs. The children grow up unable to develop real trusting relationships with others. On a macro level, I believe this is the cause of our terrible penchant for divisiveness and Sinah. The need for close affiliation is expressed in the Torah the only time G-d says something is Lo Tov when creating the world. “Lo tov heios ha-adam levado”- It is not good for man to be alone.
The second need, to develop autonomy, is severely limited by the fear of stepping out of line. This fear is most pronounced in girls because they can lose their shidduch and stay single forever, but is also manifest in our boys. Shidduchim play a role as does being seen as a respected member of the community, meaning they must learn for X amount of years, and so on. Developing autonomy is why boys smoke and do other slightly non-accepted things that are still within the guise of accepted Yeshivishness. This need is the most basic part of G-d's plan of creation: Bechirah, or Free choice.
As to the need of expansive cognitive challenges and opportunities to demonstrate their competence, we and our kids are afraid to even think for ourselves, as we have labeled that Apikursus. So, really, how can we expect our kids to be able to experience the real world with any sense of confidence in their intellect when we have not allowed them to use it? [For an extended discussion, see note 9.]
The causes of depression specific to our community are therefore not in any way mysterious. Two phenomena that still lack clear explanation, though, are the disparity between the rates of male depression in General American and Jewish American society, and the positive correlation of Jewish Orthodoxy and higher male depression. To resolve these, it may be advantageous to adopt the following approach:
A) Notice if men in the general population behave differently than women, specifically in any way that can relieve depression.
B) Explain this disparity.
C) Observe if Jewish men act similarly to women in this regard.
D) Explain this similarity.
Certain statistics immediately jump out when approaching the phenomenon this way. Number one is that men in the general public are more than twice as likely to develop alcoholism [10] or engage in antisocial behavior [11]. This is important for us because these behaviors are brought about by stimuli similar to depression, most importantly, anxiety and stress. Indeed, alcoholism goes hand in hand with depression many times [12], although men may use it to mask depression, possibly because of the social stigma attached [13]. Antisocial behavior has also been shown to be caused by stimuli similar to those causing depression [11][14]. Alcohol abuse, however, is socially unacceptable for women in American society, while depression doesn't hold the same negative stereotype for them [15][13]. They are therefore more likely to skip alcohol on the way to depression, and similarly, don't consider antisocial behavior to be a suitable outlet.
Is this true for Jewish men? In the same Brown University study mentioned at the beginning of the article, one factor other than level of religious observance was noted to be positively correlated with higher rates of depression; lower levels of alcoholism. This is strange, because as Judith Weinstein Klein, a Berkeley psychologist, notes in the JACS article mentioned above, “Usually people who are alcoholic are very depressed." The finding is therefore downplayed later on in the article by many prominent psychologists. However, this finding,is very much in sync with the theory I have laid out. Alcoholism is lower in the Jewish, and especially, frum community, for reasons similar to why it is lower amongst women in general: Drinking (to the point of drunkenness) has never been socially accepted amongst Jews. Antisocial behavior is condemned by the Torah and Jewish society. By Jews, therefore, this non-acceptance is based on the religious thought that has shaped our society. Predictably, the more one disassociates from traditional Jewish society and associates with secular American culture, the more prone to alcoholism they are.
Traditional Judaism therefore takes away most of the unhealthy methods of releasing stress and anxiety and only presents one real alternative: depression. And although full-blown depression is also looked down on socially, the ‘gateway’ stages of depression, such as rumination on depressive thoughts, perfectionism, and isolation, can actually be thought of as good qualities in Jewish society. This is because similar attributes such as self-examination, strict observance of Mitzvos, and introspection [16] are valued highly in works of Mussar and ethics. It is likely that the Bochurim themselves do not even understand the difference.
What is the answer? I don't know, but it's definitely not G-d's will for us to be perpetuating this sickness. Some thoughts that come to my mind are:
Competition is based on the need to gain self-worth. This is done destructively through competition. We can practice, though, living openly, without any fear and with as much honesty as we can. We can learn to love and value ourselves and our children not based on any accomplishments, but as human beings: beings created by G-d, as His first thought in creation, to live and gain pleasure. And if we choose the higher good that He has offered us in the Torah in His supernal love, as our grandfathers did in days not too long ago, we will gain the true good that is in G-d Himself. G-d granted us brains to choose to see Him and choose His way with our Free Choice. But not out of fear of communal reprisal. How can someone expect to even gain a reward like that? Animals have that fear. Real Judaism has always been internally focused, joyous and beautiful. And although this letter has emphasized what I believe is the prevailing outlook in most of our community, there are many Jews who still practice authentic Yiddishkeit. I believe if we can make this approach real to ourselves, we can eliminate the feeling of the need for competition. [17]
[2: For some examples, see "http://www.camh.net/Publications/Cross_Currents/Winter_2002-03/jewdepressed_crcuwinter2002_03.html", and "http://media.www.yuobserver.com/media/storage/paper989/news/2009/02/26/Features/Depression.In.The.Jewish.Community.An.Interview.With.Dr.David.Pelcovitz-3652486.shtml". After extensive research, I have not found a single study confirming a genetic link. It is possible that professionals such as Pelcovitz are referring to the general link to account for part of the problem.]
[3: See Ross M: Suicide among physicians: a psychological study. Dis Nerv Syst 1973; 34:145-150, and Adolescent Suicide and Academic Competition in East Asia, Kangmin Zeng and Gerald Le Tendre, Comparative Education Review, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Nov., 1998), pp. 513-528. Also notable is http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/lawyersunhappy.asp for Dr. Martin Seligman's hypothesis of competition and the zero-sum game nature of Law. Please note, however, that due to the lack of real data, my theory as it applies to the frum community is strictly observational.]
[4: See What does it mean to be well-educated? By Alfie Kohn. This view is corroborated by many studies summarized here: http://www.brains.org/depression.htm Also noteworthy is Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y. By Bruce Tulgan, for its impact in the workplace.]
[5: See http://www.jstor.org/stable/1131415 and Self-esteem and "if…then" contingencies of interpersonal acceptance. Baldwin, Mark W.; Sinclair, Lisa Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 71(6), Dec 1996, 1130-1141 respectively. The general acceptance of the negative correlation between high self-esteem and depression is enumerated here: http://www.brains.org/depression.htm ]
[6: Devarim 8:11-8:19. To elaborate; the Torah specifically says that this is likely to happen in wealthy economies. It is startling to read it so openly in the Chumash. I'll just go over the main points here.
8:11 Take care, lest you forget G-d...to not guard His commandments.... 12. You will eat and be satisfied and you will build good houses and settle...14. and your heart will become haughty... 17. and you will say in your heart my strength and the work of my hand made me all this wealth. 18. Then you shall remember G-d...that it was He who gave you strength to make wealth... 19. It shall be that if you forget Hashem, your G-d, and go after the gods of others and worship them and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish, 20. like the nations that Hashem causes to perish before you, so shall you perish. Verse 17 says it is something we say in our heart, almost unconsciously. In ancient times, when they didn't listen to G-d, they automatically went after idols because of a specific strong desire, as related in the Talmud. That is why it says in verse 18 you shall remember, and immediately after in verse 19, it shall be if you forget and then automatically go after the gods of others. Today, though, we can forget and still act outwardly as Jews. But kochi veotzem yadi, and it's necessary child, competition against others to gain resources, is turning away from G-d. At the end of the Tochacha, the Torah says the all of the punishments will happen because we did not serve G-d in [times of] joy and glad heart. It is the same message: kochi veotzem yadi thinking is turning away from G-d.] nbsp;
[7: For one listing of Jewish asymmetrical achievement, see http://www.goldenageofjewishachievement.com/jewish-culture.html. Higher neuroticism amongst Jews has been linked here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/r15203m726612858/]
[8: Don't think we are unique in this, or that this is intrinsically caused by belief in Torah. It seems clear that this is also the basis of Islam's fight with America and all Western ideas. Western societies dominated them as colonies until the 1950's and 60's. When they revolted or were granted autonomy, they still had a deep sense of inferiority to Western technology and science. They should have restructured their countries into democracies and joined the West. But short-sighted revolutionaries seized the people's minds and hearts with dreams of building their societies based on the moral superiority of Islam and totally rejecting the west (except, of course, their weaponry). They made rejection of the west part of their religion even, all to cover up the sense of inferiority to western society and preserve their pride. For more on this, read Chapter 14 of Modern Times, by Paul Johnson]
[9: I believe our present unfortunate state can be more fully understood in the context of our ancestors' communities who emigrated to America. Eastern-European Jewry, which the vast majority of us descend from, was shielded from the Haskalah movement. There was no preparation for the masses to deal with the Haskalah because Jews lived a Ghettoized existence and never came into contact with it. The only ones who did face it were the few gifted minds that sat in the handful of Yeshivos. It is noteworthy, however, that most of Lithuanian Jewry who did not sit in Yeshiva were also unprepared for the Haskalah and were lost. (History taken from Triumph of Survival by Rabbi Berel Wein.)
This mindset did not ever change. The Rebbeim of Lubavitch famously sided with the Czar against Napoleon to prevent the exposure of the common man to the Haskalah. Even immediately before World War II, the Rabbonim paskened that Jews should stay in Europe rather than go to America. But change came that forced us to leave Europe, rachmana litzlan. And the people that survived joined the lost people here with no answer. Thus, the rapid acceptance of Kollel in America for everyone as explained above. But this universal kollel system is painfully unnatural to everyone as we watch the money quickly drying up. (I don't claim to have Da'as Torah, but I think it is clear that Reb Aharon's intention in instituting Kollel was to “Return the crown to it's ancient level of prestige”, not for it to become a societally-mandated norm.) We are now forced to adopt a healthy outlook in which to live as Torah Jews in this present reality.
Here, I think we can turn to the outstanding example, in my opinion, of religious Judaism thriving in the face of Haskalah. The original Yekkishe Kehillah. They established thriving communities in Manhattan, Baltimore, and other cities when everyone else was hemorrhaging their children to American secularism. And it's really clear why. The German Kehillah was the only community on the forefront of the Haskalah attack that survived by creating a new approach to a totally Torah-true way of life. As Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer says in his book, “A time to build”, the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach was not intended by Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch to be a temporary fix. This was Torah as it applied to the new world. Unfortunately, it seems the Kehillah is now merging with the Mainstream Frum community and not following the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach.
Other approaches are noteworthy in their more limited successes as well. The Modern Orthodox movement has a more open approach (though I don't profess to know the Halachic issues the Frum world had with it), but it also seems to have lost its mooring and is blowing around in the wind today. The main Lubavitch community experiences the same competition and infighting as the rest of us, but there is no doubt that their Sheluchim are well equipped to deal with reality. The main thing we need to do, though, is deal with the problem. Then we can design and implement a strategy to overcome it. ]
[10: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/285913-overview, http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/a/alcoholism/stats-country.htm]
[11: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/antisocial-personality-disorder/DS00829/DSECTION=risk-factors]
[12: A longitudinal study of the order of onset of alcohol dependence and major depression SE. Gilman, HD. Abraham, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2001, vol. 63, pp. 277--286]
[13: A good synopsis is located at http://www.healthyplace.com/depression/men/when-it-comes-to-depression-men-are-affected-differently-than-women/menu-id-68/]
[14: Berger, Kathleen Stassen (2003). The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence, Worth Publishers.]
[15: See http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0847/is_n2_v15/ai_12490633/pg_2/?tag=content;col1 for an excellent summary.]
[16: Discussion and studies about these symptoms can be found here: 1) Ruminating on problems: http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle.aspx 2) Unhealthy perfectionism: http://hewittlab.psych.ubc.ca/pdfs/1991hf1.pdf 3) Isolation: http://helpguide.org/mental/depression_teen.htm
[17: Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski has written over 40 books, most dealing with gaining healthy self-esteem. Taken seriously, his ideas can go a long way in solving our competition problem.]

A follow-up. Notice I write "My competition" instead of "My depression". That was back when I cared about the stigma. That, and I erased my last name from the blog.

My Competition

For people who are worried about the Hashkafic basis of the article on competition and have already created a defense to it, please allow me to share a personal story.
                For a long time, I was obsessed with one question: What is my purpose? Throughout high school and Bais Medrash, I spoke to many people and could not come up with a satisfactory answer.
                Recently, I was reading the Derech Hashem by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, searching for the same answer, and came across something that seemed totally nonsensical to me. He says G-d created us for our own good. And the entire service of G-d is only for us to have our hearts constantly directed towards Him. G-d doesn't need this world at all. “Well, then,” I thought, “if we know we don't serve any purpose that gives or changes anything to G-d or any other 'essential thing' that G-d needs, why should we do anything? What can we feel good about doing?”
                That's when I realized that my whole 'quest' was simply a result of my competitive outlook on life. It had corrupted my view of Judaism and poisoned my relationship with G-d. I was looking to justify my existence through a job I had in this world that could compete with the feelings of inferiority to the outside world. The real pshat is that there is no purpose if you describe that as a need for our existence, that G-d uses us for. He is not out to get us. And this is obvious if you look at life. G-d made many pleasures in this world, but they are all fleeting, like it says, “Too much honey makes you sick, etc...” This is true with every pleasure in the world. That's because we can experience pleasure in this world and then understand, imagine and finally desire the true pleasure in the World to Come, i.e. being connected to G-d, and partaking of His goodness. 
                That realization was what allowed me on the one hand to stop apologizing for Judaism, and on the other to let go of feelings of Judaism being forced on me, something I had done to some extent my whole life.

 That last part didn't last long. If only it were actually that easy. OK, one last piece before it atrophied.

Is Bais Yaakov Healthier?

The following is pure conjecture, but I was speaking with a friend, a Limudei Kodesh teacher for high school girls, who said something interesting about the Bais Yaakov school system. She says that Bais Yaakovs, in general, have a much more rounded curriculum than boys Yeshivos. Aside from Jewish learning, there is also a focus on Chesed, various homemaking classes, and an ability to take college courses. A girl has much more opportunity to find a niche where she excels and can therefore feel good about. Yeshivos, on the other hand, are entirely focused on text-based Jewish learning, with a specific hierarchy of value assigned to each Limud, i.e. first Iyun in Gemara, then Bekiyus, then Halacha. And if a boy isn't good at one of these 3 Limudim, he is a failure in the system. (There's even a stigma attached to being a Mashgiach!) The system is designed to create failures out of most of the boys attending. Of course this isn't an accident. Sara Schneirer designed the Bais Yaakovs specifically with diversity in mind. I think we can learn a lot by studying the successes of the Bais Yaakov system and revising Yeshivos accordingly.

If all this is interesting to you, I'd advise reading Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin's website (drsorotzkin.com), starting with the piece titled "The Role of Parents". He has the best stuff out there, in my opinion (not that there's a whole lot to choose from).