Depression and Faith: An Interview with Rabbi Mark Gellman


Today’s guest on our show is Rabbi Mark Gellman.

Rabbi Gellman is the Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth Torah in Melville, New York where he has served since 1981.  He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Northwestern University in 1981 where he also completed doctoral work in the History and Literature of Religions specializing in Buddhism and Judaism. He is the recipient of many honorary degrees.

Rabbi Gellman writes a weekly column, “The Spiritual State,” for Newsweek magazine and the syndicated column,“The God Squad,” read by readers around the world.

Welcome to our show Rabbi Gellman.


Rabbi, during your time that you’ve been a Rabbi, and I understand that’s been decades now, have you counseled people with depression?

Rabbi Gellman:

Yes, I have.  Although my general orientation, and I hope it’s the orientation of most clergy, is to refer people to professional psychiatrist or psychologists who specialize in this. It’s not something that clergy should enter, in general, because they’re not trained for it.


Once you’ve referred those people and they are treating with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or both, do the clergy have some role in comforting the people with spiritual support with this kind of condition?

Rabbi Gellman:

Yes, I think we serve two roles.

One is what I would call “psychiatric first responders.”

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We’re the ones who first alert people to the fact that they are depressed and that they need some kind of professional treatment in order to get back to some level of functioning life. The second purpose which we serve as clergy, if we are doing our jobs well, and our calling well is to provide to the community a message of hope. The antidote to depression, of course, is hope. And in a communal sense, Rabbis can provide that hope. In fact, it is my view that the search for hope that is the primary motivator for people to affiliate with religious denominations and to seek personally their own way to God.  It is the search for hope, ultimately.


Many people who I speak to around the country, and myself included, I am a practicing Catholic, and so often in the throes of depression, or maybe even at the beginning, I would often ask God, “Why me?” I think that so many people, and maybe it’s true for any kind of suffering that afflicts people, ask that seminal question.  In your faith, and in your experiences, how do you respond to that?

Rabbi Gellman:

Well, I have a rather unconventional view of many things. And I have an unconventional view of that question. First of all, I don’t think it’s a common question. People say it is, but I don’t believe it. I’ve never heard it. Most people are not really consumed by the question of why this has happened to them.

There’s two reasons for that. First, they can think of a lot of reasons it’s happened to them. So, they know the reasons it’s happened to them. Second, the question, “why me,” presumes a kind of spiritual and ethical arrogance that most people are mature enough not to have.  By that, I mean the question, “Why me?” if you sort of unpack it a little, means, “I am so righteous, I am so good, I’ve done so much for the world, and for my family, and for my community, that my virtue is so enormous, that it should protect me against all evil.

Now, no one really believes that.

No one believes, in their right mind, in the list of the greatest human beings that have ever lived, Gandhi and Mother Teresa, that they should be No. 3.  I honestly don’t think people ask the question, “Why me?”

My approach has always been on two levels. One on a level of personal counseling to try to get people to find some resources to find some reasons to hope and I have some techniques that are very effective in that way.


Second, in my teaching, to explain to people that there are two reasons why bad things happen to them.  The first is that they caused them to happen. People who have lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking really have no right to say, “Why me?” They did it to themselves. People who have neglected their physical fitness and have developed different pathologies that come from obesity or inactivity have done it to themselves.  So, much of what happens to us, that is evil, is self-produced.

The second reason why bad things happen is because of what Aristotle called, “natural evil”. That is just the way the world works. A Rabbi said a phrase, “Olam K’minhago nohgge,” which means the world goes according to its own order. It means if you’re walking along the street and a brick falls from a scaffolding and you’re underneath, it’s bad luck on you. But, that’s just the way the world works. If you happen to be in a place where a tornado hits, or a hurricane hits, it’s the way the world works and this natural order of the world is not evil.  It’s just the natural working of the laws of the world. A Tsunami is not evil. If a wave crashes over an uninhabited island it’s not evil. It’s only if people are there. Well, people choose to be there.  The point is there are things we do to ourselves and there are things that happen to us because the world is the way it is.


With respect to “the way the world is, would that include our bodies, our brains, and our genetics? There are now studies which show that many, many people, especially with the more severe forms of depression, have a strong genetic vulnerability to depression. Or, other people grow up in neglectful homes where they are neglected or physically abused.  Those people have high rates of adult-onset depression.  Can you follow-up on this?

Rabbi Gellman:

Sure, I mean, sometimes you draw some bad cards. You draw environmental bad cards, you grow up in an abusive, deprived upbringing, and, in some cases, you draw a bad genetic card. But, I would say to both those things that there are ways that people overcome those inheritances.

For example, there are people who grow up in very, very difficult circumstances.  And for some reason, they are disciplined and hopeful, and they are able to move out into better circumstances for the rest of their life.   Other people surrender to the difficulties of their environment.  How do you distinguish between one and the other? Why is someone able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and someone else isn’t from the same deprived neighborhood? So, something else is at work here.

As far as the genetic inheritance, it may be true, it probably, certainly is true, studies in schizophrenia certainly seem to indicate it is true, that there’s a strong genetic component to depression.  However, there’s a problem with focusing on that medical fact and the problem is that it gives people an excuse to wallow in their depression, to surrender to their depression.  Hey, look, I’ve known people who are obese, who say, “Look, I can’t lose weight because I’m genetically fat.”

You know, that’s ridiculous.

You may have a genetic predilection to obesity, you my have a genetic predilection to depression, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fight it.  And if you believe that this was your inheritance, it’s just another reason to surrender. And depression requires vigilance, and it requires very strong emotional dedication to becoming well again.


Can you give us some insights into how the Jewish faith, the Jewish religion, views depression, and, specifically, do you give examples from the Old Testament that you believe are insightful into how people can see their depression and overcome their depression?  You minister and you preach. Can you give us a little insight on that?

Rabbi Gellman:

The first is a personal understanding. I think it comes out of scripture, but not directly.


It’s a technique that I developed which I call, “spiritual balancing.” The history of this is that my wife and I, Betty, were living in Evanston near Northwestern University. We were remodeling an old house and the fellow that was helping us do some spakling was carrying two big containers of this spakle up the stairs and I said to him, “Why don’t you just carry one bucket up? Why carry two at once?” And he said, “Well, if I carry one it throws me off and it hurts my back.  If I carry two, it keeps me in balance and I can carry twice as much.”

For some reason, it was an epiphany for me.  It was a life-changing moment, just watching this guy carry spakle up the stairs. What I realized at that moment, and developed it as a counseling technique, and have spoken to psychiatric associations about it, is this technique of spiritual balancing.


So it works this way. Someone comes to me and they’re depressed, they’re in grief, they’re in a bad place.  So I say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do five minutes of you telling me, in as much excruciating detail as you can, why your life is miserable. Five minutes.

And then, for the next five minutes, I want you to tell me why your life is wonderful. What are the wonderful things in your life. But it has to be for the same amount of time.

I do this often with people in grief.  “Give me five minutes of how sad you are, and how broken you are that you’re loved one died and how unfair it is and how awful it is, and how it’s breaking you, and then five minutes what you loved about the person.  And what was great about the person.”

What I discovered quickly, using this technique, is that in the end, people felt much better, at the end of the counseling session. The reason they felt better was not that anything had changed, but that they had balanced the miserable, depressive thinking that they had, that had imbedded itself in their brain because of their trauma, with positive, endorphin producing, hopeful thoughts that were also in their brain, but they weren’t accessing them because they weren’t thinking about it.  They were obsessed with the loss.  That’s the purpose of the Psalms, of many different passages in the Bible which is to get you at the moment you are most depressed to thing about the goodness that is still in your life and to overcome that natural tendency to focus on your burdens by turning in a conscious way to a meditation on your blessings.

Then you will discover when you do this that there is not a single day in which you wake up where your blessings do not exceed your burdens – not one single day.


Lawyer Blues or Depression?

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience a full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief.  Depression is not an emotion itself; it’s the loss of feelings, a big heavy blanket that insulates you from the world yet hurts at the same time.  It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness. –Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

I can spot sadness on lawyer’s face.  Like a craggy poker player reads dog-eared cards in a smoke-laden backroom bar, world-weary drooped eyelids, even on young lawyers, which suggests a great weight borne, a solemnity.  To others, their expressions may seem like a seasoned lawyer’s humorless, steely resolve. But, I know better.  Their faces a subtler shade of grey, the somber hue of a 1L’s textbook on Contracts.

Their humorous repartee among each other, if any, can be deeply cynical and sarcastic. It is a tough life for many in this boat; many dream, sadly, of a different life.  “Every man has his secret,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”

It’s normal to “feel the blues”, a sadness that colors our lives from time to time like the reds of anger, the greens of envy.  Sadness is the price we pay to experience its opposite: happiness.  Carl Jung, a protégé of Sigmund Freud, wrote, “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness”.


Sadness is not clinical depression – – not by a long shot – – because while sadness is an emotional response to a loss, depression is a loss of feeling; the absence of a wide array of emotions replaced by psychic pain.

There are two major differences between the blues and depression: the length of time the sadness endures and whether or not there are other symptoms associated with depression which are tagging along with the perpetual sadness. “I think the difference between just having the blues and depression lies in the symptoms,” said Raymond Crowe, M.D., UI professor of psychiatry. “If ‘the blues’ persist for more than a couple of weeks and are accompanied by trouble eating, difficulty sleeping, or suicidal thoughts, you should see someone.”

J.K. Rowling, the creator of that mischievous and bespectacled wizard Harry Potter, makes this distinction:

Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.

Psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of Against Depression, underscores the point that depression is a serious illness and not ordinary sadness:

For the psychiatrist, then, depression becomes an intimate.  It is poor company.  Depression destroys families. It ruins careers. It ages patients prematurely. It attacks their memories and their general health. For us – for me – the truth that depression is a disease is unqualified.  Depression is debilitating, progressive and relentless in its downhill course, as tough and worthy opponent as any doctor might choose to combat.

It’s important to recognize the difference between sadness and depression because a suffering lawyer will not be able to resolve the depression by himself; talking it out with a group of work pals over some Old Milwaukee’s after work just won’t get to the bottom of the problem.  This person will need a mental health professional to help evaluate him to see if he has depression, and, if so, to get him the serious help he needs.

Others simply do not have a reference point for depression unless they have been through it before.  Have they known loss and sadness? Yes.  The deep psychic pain of depression?  No. So they misidentify a person with depressive symptoms as having the blues which can have severe consequences because the more people do so, the greater the isolation, the greater pit of desolation the depressive falls into because no one understands and because they do not understand, it becomes hard for them to seek out help.

This commingling of sadness and depression is confusing – – and dangerous.  This is so because a sufferer and those around him may underestimate the gravity of the situation: “Bob is just sad, going through a tough patch at the law office.  He’ll get over it.”

But, Bob might not.  He may get worse.  The depression may deepen.  He may need medication that he’ll never get. He may need to talk to a therapist to address the distorted thinking that goes on during a depression. He may need medication to lift himself out of the darkness. Absent such help and hope, he may commit suicide.  As much as 80% of suicides are committed by those struggling with depression and lawyers have much higher suicide rates than the general population.

Not only do others misunderstand and mislabel a depressed lawyer’s symptoms as regular sadness, the depressive himself often does not know what is going on inside him or herself.  He himself may be confused because while he knows what sadness is, he senses something bigger than sadness – – and much worse – – may be happening to him.  He senses something is deeply wrong, but might ignore the red flags, or symptoms of depression, because he doesn’t know what they mean. If he’s never experienced major depression before, he doesn’t know that they’re harbingers of something awful, a turbid wave about to hit his bow.


Grief, a close cousin of sadness, has several symptoms in common with major depression because its symptoms are more layered than everyday sadness: the sadness is accompanied by sleep problems and poor appetite, for example.

Another significant difference between the two is that grief tends to be trigger-related:  People that are grieving tend to feel better in situations where they have heart-felt support, but have their grief triggered by things that remind them of their deep loss such as their wedding anniversary which they no longer enjoy because their spouse has died.  Andrew Solomon sums it up best, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

The reason for the differences between sadness and depression is because with the former we are dealing with a normal human emotion which is transitory – – it will change, subside and be replaced with other emotional experiences.  Depression is not transitory because it is an illness going on in the brain, a system unable to ward off serious psychic pain.

These losses are stressful, but not, in themselves, necessarily depressing in a clinical sense. Peter Kramer, M.D., writes:

Depression can be set off by a variety of stressors: sexual abuse, housing problems, illness in one’s child, and the other common problems you might imagine. To suggest that depression arises from loss is to skew the argument in the direction of the metaphor . . . , the one that likens apparent depression to ordinary bereavement. Likewise, “sadness” does not capture the essence of depression, which is a marked disruption of brain and mind characterized by painful apathy. Not only in degree but also in quality, sadness and depression are different.

So, look at the nature of your pain and others.  Is it something you can relate to some loss?  If so, it’s probably sadness. If not and there are a few symptoms of depression, bereavement that will pass at some point after a major loss.  If not, the culprit is probably depression.




My Mom’s Passing Last Night

I was with my mom last night as she lay dying of brain cancer.  I stroked her brow and kissed her many times.  We were alone together in the room around 9 p.m. Only a crack of light from the hallway shined in from the partially closed door.  Holding her hand, I told her that it was okay to let go. That God would take care of everything.  I read to her from the book of Psalms. 

She slipped away at 10 p.m. 

Driving home late last night, memories of our journey together flooded me: her teaching me to whistle on kitchen steps one summer when I was 5, showing me how “big boys” tie their sneakers by themselves and lying in bed with her and my younger brother when we were small children and her teaching us our nighttime prayer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die, before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

I prayed that prayer with her last night, over 40 years later from when  she had first taught it to me.

My mom’s life was marked by extraordinary kindness.

Psalm 85 reads, in part:

I will hear what God proclaims;

The Lord – for he proclaims peace.

Near indeed is his salvation to those who trust in Him;

glory dwelling in our land.

Kindness and truth shall meet

Justice and peace shall kiss.

Truth shall spring out of the earth,

and justice look down from heaven.

My mom wasn’t a particularly religious person, but it didn’t matter one damn bit.  Her Mass was one was sweetness, her host one of gentleness.

God rest this lady of kindness . . . .

Father’s Day By the Sea


It’s Sunday night, still Father’s Day.  I’m on vacation with my family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  The ocean’s waves are right outside my window reminding me of mysteries that I’ll never understand. And I am thinking of the man who was my father all those years ago.

My earliest memories of my dad are deeply troubling.  His life was defined by violence, alcoholism and neglect of his family.  I know that sounds morbid, even to me.   But, it’s just the plain truth.

When I look back on his life this day, I think about the time that he was dying in the hospital for a month.  One night, I stopped by after everyone else had gone.  Only the florescent light from the hallway made sense of the room.  My dad was tired and I told him just to sleep.  I pulled up a chair beside his bed.  My back was turned towards him and I was hunched over in the silence.  I thought he was asleep.  Minutes passed.

Then I felt his warm hand on my back.  He was rubbing it as he never had before.  We both said nothing.  Yet, there’s no doubt what it all meant in that moment.  He was saying that he was sorry and that he loved me.  He couldn’t say those words no more than he could say at AA meetings, “My name is Walter and I’m an alcoholic.”

I asked my sister and three brothers about their memories of Dad dying. My one brother, Tony, said, “Danny, I know that you’re trying to find good in Dad.  But really, he was just a big asshole.”  Yet, I’m not so sure that’s what I was trying to do; to find “good” in him.  What felt truer to me was the mystery of grief.  Such an experience seems a strange mix of sadness, loss and the weight of existence.  It’s a mystery that I can still touch today – especially today – when I think of him.

My sense of this is captured in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Visitor.”

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.

But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open
and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hallow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

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