I did not intend to look at religious views of “mental illness” although I have concentrated on the pseudoscientific status of psychology and its basis in JudeoChristian / Puritanical hatred of Nature and free human beings.
Last night I was cruising for post ideas when I landed on an article written by a devotee of Simon Baron Cohen. Readers may remember him as the person who has labeled Autistic and Asperger children and adults as “Positive Psychopaths” – the co-psychopaths of rapists, murderers, sadists, dictators, tyrants and such. Why? Like all evil people we have “No empathy, zero empathy” We commit evil, but can be excused, because our brains are broken. (My reply? How dare you.)
Anyway, while cruising for SBC references these articles came up: a rather different slant on mental illness and ASD. I can’t help with making sense of religious material: I flunked being Episcopalian, which is pretty hard to do. Not edited, so this post is long. Enjoy!
Religious thoughts on Autism, ASD
Question: Do autistic children have special souls?
This may sound like a silly question. I am the mother of two autistic children. I love them both dearly, but as any parent of children with special needs will tell you, raising them is challenging and can often be full of disappointment, hurt and frustration. I once heard somewhere that the Kaballah considers children who are autistic to be on a higher spiritual level, almost like angels. I found this idea to be extremely comforting and it gave me much strength to continue. I am trying to find out a little bit more about this concept — is there any mention and/or allusion to autism anywhere in the Torah and/or other holy texts?
Every time I encounter a parent or guardian taking care of someone with special needs, I am in awe of their dedication and love. Reading your email with the preface “This may sound like a silly question…” is also inspiring. If your question is silly, then what am I to say of all my problems I imagine to be so important?
You asked for a source in the Kabbalah stating that the souls of these children are somehow special. In fact, there is just such a statement in the Zohar. But, as with most of the Zohar, it is not something immediately fathomable, so I hope you are up to a preamble and some explanation.
In the Torah reading of Emor (which happens to be the week in which you are asking this question) we find the laws of kohanim who have certain disabilities and are therefore disqualified from serving in the Holy Temple. The verse states “Any man among Aaron the Kohen’s offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up G‑d’s fire offerings” (Leviticus 21:21).
How can it be that one who has done nothing wrong is barred from serving in the Holy Temple just because of a “blemish”? The G‑d who taught us to look beyond appearances and treat all with equal love, the same G‑d who created this very kohen with his disability, tells us “Nope, due to his blemish, he cannot serve Me in the Holy Temple”?!
So here is what is written in the holy Zohar:1
Rabbi Shimon opened the discussion with the verse: “Only he shall not go in to the Veil, nor come near the to altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not My holy places: for I, G‑d, do sanctify them” (Vayikra 21:23). “He shall not go in to the Veil.” Come and behold: at the time the river is flowing and comes out, and issues the souls, the feminine aspect above conceives. And they all abide in a room …
When the moon is rendered defective by the same aspect of the evil serpent, like all the souls that are issued, although they were all pure and sacred, are flawed. Since they emerged at a defective time, whichever place these souls reach [i.e. bodies] are crushed, and suffer pains and afflictions. The Holy One, blessed be He, cares for those who are broken, although their souls are sad instead of joyous.
The secret is that they remain as they were above. While the body is flawed, the soul inside remains the same as above. The one state resembles the other. Therefore, they are to be renewed like the moon, as it is written (Isaiah 66:23): “And it shall come to pass, that every new moon, and every Shabbat, all flesh shall come to bow down to the ground before Me, says G‑d.” “All flesh” assuredly, for they are in need of renewal along with the moon.
…These righteous are the constant companions of the moon and have the identical defects…. And “G‑d is near to them who are of a broken heart”2—that is, to those who suffer from the same defect as the moon, those who are always near her. “And He saves such as are of a contrite spirit,”3 by giving them a portion of the life …because they who suffered with her shall also be renewed with her.
…Those defects from which the righteous suffer are called “sufferings of love,” because they are caused by love and not by the man himself…Happy is their portion in this world and in the world to come…
As you can see, the words are quite esoteric. The thrust of them, however, is quite simple: There are souls born into the world that are whole on the inside, yet blemished on the outside. The reason is not for any punishment, but on the contrary, out of love. To understand further, you will need a little more explanation:
You need to know that the moon is a reference to G‑d’s immanent presence in the world, otherwise known as the Shechinah. You also need to know that the Shechina, like the moon, wanes and waxes, as G‑d’s presence sometimes shines brightly in the world, and at other times is shadowed and darkened. Some souls are conceived (not on earth, but above) at the waxing of the cycle. Those souls enter the world with a strong body and glide through life happily. Other souls are conceived with the darkening of the Shechina. Rabbi Shimon tells us that these souls share in the suffering of the Shechina—and that is why she is their constant companion. Eventually, this cycle of the Shechina will resolve in an everlasting fullness as G‑d’s presence will shine in ultimate intensity in this world, and these souls “shall also be renewed with her.”
So far, some answers. But many puzzles remain: Why must the Shechinah suffer? And what is the point behind these souls suffering along with her?
Concerning the suffering of the Shechina, Rabbi Yitzchaak Luria, the Ari, provided a deep and enlightening teaching. He explained that everything of our world is vitalized and sustained in existence by a divine spark. The higher the spark, he said, the lower it falls. The most intense divine light, therefore, is to be found in the darkest corners of our world. The Shechinah is both the light of G‑d’s presence and the mother of all souls. The function of the human soul is to rescue these fallen sparks from their darkness so they may be reconnected to the Infinite Light. The Shechinah suffers as she descends into the darkness to perform that rescue. This, the Ari says, is “the secret of the exile of the Shechinah,” as the Talmud says, “When the Jewish People go into exile, the Shechina goes with them.”4
The Tzemach Tzedek5 uses this teaching of the Ari to explain the above words of the Zohar. Generally, he writes, there are two ways to rescue the sparks from the forces of darkness. He equates the spiritual task of the unblemished souls to an army which engages another in battle. Eventually, the victors subdue their enemy but do not eradicate them completely.
Then, the Tzemach Tzedek continues, there are those born with a blemish—albeit external, since their soul remains whole. Their task is to totally eradicate evil so that it ceases to exist. Yet to do so, they must come into direct contact with that darkness. They are like those special forces sent out in camouflage in order to entice the enemy into an ambush. Obviously these soldiers do not have the outside trappings of a burly navy seal, after all, would any half intelligent fighter follow someone who appears as a threat to them into an ambush? But on the inside, internally, they are the elite troops, charged with a special mission.
Another way of saying this: In order to battle face to face with the darkness, the soul needs to have some of that darkness itself. Yet only externally—in order that this darkness itself can be redeemed.
How does this apply to the special needs child? Certainly all of us have seen clearly how these children—who were until recently neatly quarantined away from society in secluded institutions—have given us so much now that we allow them to participate in society. A school that helps mainstream such a child is doing a great service to all its students, teaching them compassion and understanding of others. A community that helps out finds itself bonded together in their act of caring. You may have heard of the Friendship Circles that have sprung up to assist in this mainstreaming. The directors tell me that the ones who benefit the most are the teens that volunteer—and end up learning so much from these special souls. As a parent, yes it is hard, but in the long run you certainly have the most to gain.
You ask if your children can be compared to angels, but in fact they hold a position much higher. The rest of us serve as the foot soldiers in G‑d’s army, which itself is position greater than angels. But your children are of the elite troops, completing a special task in this world. Their challenges are certainly no fault of their own, and neither of yours. On the contrary, you have been given the great merit of bringing these two elite souls into the world, nurturing them and caring for them as they complete their lofty mission. It is by no means an easy job, but G‑d only entrusts these souls into the hands He deems most appropriate.
Here is a short thought along the same lines: Gifted and Challenged.
Talking about Kohanim, and being a Kohen myself, I want to bless you with much nachas from your children, and with the strength to meet the challenge and privilege that G‑d has presented you with.
Henry Makow.com / Asperger’s — The Jewish Syndrome? From an artist’s POV
Is an egoism bordering on autism a racial characteristic? Is it a kind of genius? Playwright David Mamet an Ashkenazi Jew, suggests it accounts for the many famous Jewish film producers & directors. by David Mamet (from his book Bambi Vs Godzilla, 2007)
I think it is not impossible that Asperger’s syndrome helped make the movies. The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutiae of the task at hand. This sounds to me like a job description for a movie director. Let me also note that Asperger’s syndrome has its highest prevalence among Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants. For those who have not been paying attention, this group constitutes, and has constituted since its earliest days, the bulk of America’s movie directors and studio heads. Neal Gabler, in his An Empire of Their Own points out that the men who made the movies – Goldwyn, Mayer, Schenck, Laemmle, Fox, – all came from a circle with Warsaw at its center, its radius a mere two hundred miles. (I will here proudly insert that my four grandparents came from that circle). Widening our circle to all of Eastern European Jewry (the Ashkenazim), we find a list of directors beginning with Joe Sternberg’s class and continuing strong through Steven Spielberg’s and the youth of today. There was a lot of moosh written in the last two decades about the “blank slate”, the idea that since each child is theoretically equal under the eyes of the law, each must, by extension be equal in all things and that such a possibility could not obtain unless each child was, from birth, equally capable – environmental influences aside – of succeeding in all things. This is a magnificent and majestic theory and would be borne by all save those who had ever had, observed, or seriously thought about children. Races, as Steven Pinker wrote in his refutational The Blank Slate, are just rather large families; families share genes and thus, genetic disposition. Such may influence the gene holders (or individuals) much, some, or not at all. The possibility exists, however, that a family passing down the gene for great hand-eye coordination is likely to turn out more athletes than without. The family possessing the genes for visual acuity will likely produce good hunters, whose skill will provide nourishment. The families of the good hunters will prosper and intermarry, thus strengthening the genetic disposition in visual acuity. Among the sons of Ashkenazi families nothing was more prized than genius at study and explication. Prodigious students were identified early and nurtured – the gifted child of the poor was adopted by a rich family, which thus gained status and served the community, the religion, and the race. The boys grew and regularly married into the family or extended family of the wealthy. The precocious ate better and thus lived longer, and so were more likely to mate and pass on their genes. These students grew into acclaimed rabbis and Hassidic masters, and founded generations of rabbis; the progeny of these rabbinic courts intermarried, as does any royalty, and that is my amateur Mendelian explication of the prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome in the Ashkenazi. What were the traits indicating the nascent prodigy? Ability to retain and correlate vast amounts of information, a lack of desire (or ability) for normal social interaction, idiosyncrasy, preternatural ability for immersion in minutiae; ecco, six hundred years of Polish rabbis and one hundred of their genetic descendants, American film directors. — Related – Asperger’s & Jewish Social Ostracism
A Comment: Asperger’s often goes undiagnosed. One child I worked with was in therapy since he was 4 years old, he was 12 the first time I saw him. He was very intelligent and complained of everybody picking on him. I thought I would take the time and observe him in a classroom setting. The other kids were verbally vicious towards him and his defenses were as a 4 year old. He has Asperger’s. He was in therapy for 8 years with many therapists and not one caught it. Asperger’s runs in families, no doubt. It usually affects males in the paternal line. Asperger’s children truly suffer from constant harassment from their peers, siblings and parents. The boy’s father was very abusive trying to force the boy to act normal, this lead to the end of the marriage as his mother was more understanding. Most Asperger’s have PTSD and dissociation compounding the issue. Though I don’t work with autism, several of my colleagues are having good results. It is an epigenetic issue and David Mamet actually is somewhat describing epigenetics whether he realizes it or not.
Case study by a colleague: 12 year old Jewish boy, a virtual living vegetable. He would only sit under a table. He was very still in his movements, quiet and strangely breathed slowly through his mouth as if breathing through a tube. His parents were asked many questions about their family tree. The boys paternal grandfather was asked many questions. This grandfather had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp; the guards saw him and gave chase. Terrified he hid among reeds in a river. He submerged himself using a hollow reed to breathe through. Guards were stationed only feet from him for 2 days. He could not move or he would be shot. The grandfather never spoke of this to anybody. His autistic grandson snapped out of it the moment he heard the story.
He was endlessly reliving the terror of his grandfather.
This boy then was able to describe his experience. He said it was as if he were a stellar black hole, where information could come in, but not go out. He understood everything even though he appeared comatose.
I have heard that he has completely recovered and is doing well in school.
The Baron-Cohens and the Problem of Evil
By Allan Nadler • Thursday, May 31, 2012
The pervasiveness of evil and the suffering of innocents have confounded religious believers throughout history. Jews, with their history marked by abundant evidence of evil and their faith in an omnipotent and benevolent God, have unsurprisingly produced a vast Jewish literature that attempts to reconcile God’s justice with evil’s apparent dominion, in works ranging from the book of Job to Harold Kushner’s best-selling When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
The Evil Inclination Raphael Magarik, Jewish Ideas Daily. For the rabbis, the yetzer hara is not a part of the human psyche or soul, and not a metaphor for it, either. Rather, it is an actual, physical demon.
The Male Condition Simon Baron-Cohen, New York Times. According to what Baron-Cohen calls the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, people with the disorder simply match an extreme of the male profile, with an unusually low drive to empathize.
The Family Baron-Cohen Sarah Glazer, Moment. Family legend has it that when Chaim Baron, a red-headed widower, emigrated to Britain, he tacked Cohen to his name to show his Jewish pride and his descent from the priestly cohanim.
The history of Jewish suffering at the hands of evildoers has also produced an unrivalled body of comedy, often the Jews’ most brilliant and resilient response to such monsters. The evil that most terrifies the Jewish state today is the nuclear holocaust threatened by Iran’s dictators; and it is no accident that the new film The Dictator, by the Jewish comic Sacha Baron Cohen, tackles precisely this subject. The film’s protagonist, Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya, a composite of Middle Eastern dictators from Muammar Qaddafi to Saddam Hussein, harbors the same dastardly nuclear ambitions as Ayatollah Khameini. He pursues them through tactics that are shrewd and stupid, highly offensive and very funny. Laughing at Aladeen is a fine coping mechanism in a world beset by terrifyingly evil men.
But, of course, such laughter does not help us understand or explain such men. For those tasks we must turn to another Baron Cohen—Simon, Sacha’s first cousin, a distinguished British neuroscientist. Simon Baron-Cohen recently published The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, an erudite but concise and accessible book devoted to the scientific explanation of human malice. One benefit of Sacha’s recent piece of inspired lunacy may be to call more attention to Simon’s sane and scholarly work.
The Science of Evil is part of a trilogy of books by Baron-Cohen that summarize for non-specialists the results of decades of painstaking neuroscientific research by his Cambridge laboratory, much of it with children suffering from autism and Asperger Syndrome but also with adults exhibiting personality disorders from narcissism to criminal psychopathy. Baron-Cohen has studied these individuals through clinical analysis, therapy, what he calls “gene-hunting,” and functional magnetic resonance imaging of brain activity. Using this last technique, Baron-Cohen has found that all his subjects have a common denominator: a discernible deficit of empathy in their brain circuitry.
Baron-Cohen argues that trying to explain human cruelty through metaphysical or religious notions of good and evil produces “no explanation at all.” But, “unlike the concept of evil, empathy has explanatory power”; and his book demonstrates this power. In a minor masterpiece of popular scientific writing, Baron-Cohen takes readers on a fascinating tour of the ten-region “empathy circuit” of the brains of his empathy-deficient subjects, from the criminally psychopathic to the benignly autistic, examining them from angles environmental to chemical.
Because Baron-Cohen uses a single, if complex standard—low scores on the empathy scale—to explain behavior in subjects from innocently autistic children to criminal sociopaths, his argument might appear dangerously reductive. Some scientists and social scientists—including Steven Pinker, in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined—have mentioned Baron-Cohen in deriding what Pinker dubs the “empathy fad” (an audacious criticism coming from a man who, unlike Baron-Cohen, bases his wisdom almost entirely on others’ clinical work)- How nasty! And when Science of Evil appeared, advocates for autistic children criticized it for lumping those children together with heartless murderers.
But Baron-Cohen is no reductionist. He takes pains to make the moral distinctions between innocent and culpable and between positive and negative manifestations of what he calls ZPE (Zero Percent Empathy). Those with autism and Asperger Syndrome, he makes clear, are innocently indifferent—literally, clueless when it comes to reading the feelings of others. In extreme cases they treat others like inanimate objects; but they have no malice or intention of causing harm to others, let alone deriving joy from doing so. Baron-Cohen illustrates with a story from Joe: The Only Boy in the World, Michael Blastland’s memoir of raising his autistic son. Joe was 10 years old:
Blastland and Joe were in an elevator in a local shopping center one day, and a mother came in with her baby in a stroller. The baby started to cry, and Joe—to everyone’s shock—punched the baby to shut her up. Michael asks in his book: how do you explain to a complete stranger, this woman who cares about her baby more than anyone else in the world, that the pain your son has just caused was not malicious, bad behavior, but is because your ten-year-old son has no idea that another person can suffer pain or feel hurt by a punch?
Baron-Cohen is sympathetic to this plight; indeed, as a clinician and therapist, he has pioneered the field of empathy training. Among his works is the DVD The Transporters, designed to enhance empathy in autistic children.
Baron-Cohen also points to potentially positive consequences of “zero degrees of empathy.” Chief among them is a superior ability to systematize, which explains why many Asperger Syndrome individuals have unusually high aptitudes in math and science. Their “remarkable attention to detail” and their “ability to concentrate on a small topic for hours, to understand that topic in a highly systematic way,” Baron-Cohen argues, “can lead the individual to blossom in certain fields.”
Strikingly, Baron-Cohen’s Jewish upbringing and education and his liberal Zionist sensibilities emerge throughout the book as central—indeed, formative—in his thinking. He begins by recalling the traumatic impact of having been told as a child that Nazis used the skins of their Jewish victims to make lampshades. His early exposure to the Holocaust’s evil triggered a life-long fascination with human cruelty—and, indirectly, his stellar career in neuroscience. The book also describes Baron-Cohen’s engagement with the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” paradigm as a way of framing empathy; and the final chapter includes a calm, cogent demolition of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that the Holocaust is explained by the “banality of evil.”
The final chapter also includes Baron-Cohen’s ruminations, inspired by Shabbat dinner discussions and a Kol Nidrei synagogue sermon, about how increased empathy might bring about world peace, including Israeli-Palestinian peace. Here Baron-Cohen reveals a political naïvete at odds with his scientific sophistication.
Baron-Cohen is a leading member of an international cadre of cutting-edge clinical scientists who painstakingly study the functioning of compromised human brains. Antonio Damasio has done work similar to Baron-Cohen’s, mainly with victims of severe head trauma. Damasio’s most philosophically intriguing book, Looking for Spinoza, describes the modern scientist’s discovery that the 17th-century Jewish heretic anticipated all of Damasio’s scientific findings about human emotions. Spinoza’s pantheism—his belief that God and Nature are one and the same, bound by immutable laws—leaves no room for any beings beyond the physical universe, whether angels or evil spirits. The work of scientists like Baron-Cohen and Damasio substantiates clinically what Spinoza intuited philosophically: It powerfully debunks religious and metaphysical approaches that explain evil as a struggle between benign and malignant spirits within human souls. Instead, for these scientists, the biological explanations of all our feelings, emotions, and deeds, good and evil, are so concrete and precise that they can be mapped by MRIs.
Yet, for Baron-Cohen, this work coexists with his deep affection for his Jewish identity and for Israel. This, at least, he shares with his more flamboyant cousin.
A Comment: Why is there so much sickness, mental illness, hunger, violence, theft, murder, rape, deceit, embezzlement, lying and evil? The answer is unrighteousness and greed. Righteousness is directed by a gene within DNA. The righteous gene within the DNA of Jews comes from the Father. The gist of the Holy Commandments and laws given to Moses is to remove and prevent unrighteousness. Obedience of the laws is a promise to guard and protect the righteous gene.
Jews have migrated to all nations diluting their culture and consequently their genetics. Adultery is more than intercourse outside of marriage. Adultery is mixing righteous genes with the unrighteous. Adultery is forsaking the laws of righteousness and dwelling among the unrighteous for gain. To love the Father with all your heart and soul is to love and protect the gene of the Father that lives in you with all your heart and soul.
It is not a transgression to hate evil and love righteousness. It is not a transgression to destroy evil and nurture righteousness. Transgressors of the laws are those who interpret the laws. The laws cannot command a people to righteousness but by obedience laws can cause a righteous people. The Jews today are unchanged thousands of years after the laws and Commandments were given to them. Obedience of the Commandments and laws should have caused a righteous people worthy of salvation from destruction. Sadly though they are a people whose genetic pool is severely diluted and corrupted. Jews live the laws and Commandments but do not understand obedience. The righteous gene within DNA of Jews outside of Israel is abomination. Had the Jews obeyed the Holy Commandments and laws the entire
Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently on sabbatical in Montreal, serving as Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University and Interim Rabbi of Congregation Beth El.