Stressed Out Rabbis: Feeling Like I’m Coming Apart At The Seams

chair tom-van-hoogstraten-33916-unsplash

[Picture of a chair on a rocky beach above.] //Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten on Unsplash

I, somewhat embarrassingly, really like this extremely kitschy poster:

the sea of halacha

Edited by Abba Kovner. Available for purchase here:  // [Image of a map entitled “The Sea of Halacha” with different Jewish houses of learning and texts on it]

The (Babylonian) Talmud, and more broadly the Jewish Law (Halacha) that springs forth out of it, is long. The ArtScroll editions of the Talmud Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) is comprised of seventy-three large books, which you can purchase here for the low, low price of $2,099.

And even this massive seventy-three volume is by no means the entirety of texts in rabbinic Judaism. There’s an entirely separate (albeit shorter) Talmud, the Yerushalmi or Jerusalem Talmud. There are midrashic texts, prayer books, sermons, philosophical works, discussions of the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible itself.

It’s easy to feel unmoored when dealing with the sheer volume of texts. There isn’t any floor, nothing to grab onto. Just pulsating, living texts.

When I lived in Syracuse, I worked as a Jewish educator for a synagogue called Temple Concord. As part of that job, we occasionally had teacher-trainings: pedagogical workshops geared for part-time Jewish Sunday and Hebrew School teachers. One of these workshops was specifically about teaching children with disabilities.

While there, I learned a term that stunned me: hyposensitivity.

Hyposensitivity, like the more commonly known hypersensitivity, is a symptom some people have where they do not receive enough stimuli in the world around them:

Hyposensitivity occurs when a child is underwhelmed by the world around him or her and needs to seek out additional sensory information to feel content. Signs of this behavior could include a need to touch things excessively, always turning the volume very loud, or constantly putting objects in his or her mouth. Those who struggle with staying still for any extended period could be hyposensitive, trying to constantly seek movement stimulation.[1]

At the teacher-training, hyposensitivity wasn’t quite described like how it is above; instead it was described as the opposite of hypersensitivity. The opposite of feeling like sounds, sights, odors, touches are pressing in on a body are akin to an overwhelming attack on the body. As if one’s body can’t quite be contained by the sensations which surround it.

I, like so many others in our cultural-historical moment, have anxiety. And when I get anxious — and sometimes for no reason at all — I experience the following:

  • Sometimes I feel like there is too much space between my joints, like my bones are slowly moving away from one another and I can’t stop it.
  • Sometimes I feel like my skin can’t contain me, and that I’m slowly evaporating into the sky.
  • Sometimes I have to bite my fingers, hands, lips to remind myself that I’m real.
  • I run into things constantly, and sometimes press against things on purpose. I almost always have lots of small purple bruises on my legs. I can never remember when I got them.
  • I have a history of self-harm behaviors.
  • I feel like the girl who could turn into a puddle in The Secret World of Alex Mack. (I remember so little about this show except that it featured a pre-teen who could turn into a puddle and slide under doors.)

And I never knew how to explain these sensations before. And now there was an official-sounding word on the top of my tongue… hyposensitivity. I impressively used it with my therapist at our next appointment. (She was less impressed with me than I was with myself.)

I want to be clear here: I am not sure if I fit any kind of diagnostic criteria of hyposensitivity. But I do know that learning about hyposensitivity made me feel a little less alone.

That is why, I think, I identified so strongly with the “Sea of Talmud”/”Sea of the Halacha” language. I could easily imagine a poor rabbi, stressed out about some halachic ruling they were asked to make, trying to reach out and ground their body on something, anything, but being unable to. Feeling as if they were about to drown. In the air of the study hall.

And here I am sitting now, in a library, feeling stressed out about my dissertation. I have been slipping down my chair for minutes, and my head is almost at the top of the chair. I’m a puddle. I keep biting the my inner cheeks to remind myself I’m alive.

I feel unmoored. I do not know what to do. I have not written a dissertation before. The only way to stop being scared and anxious about my dissertation is to write it.

Five hundred words at a time.

[1] “The Differences between Hyposensitivities and Hypersensitivies in Sensory Processing Disorder,” Chicago Speech Therapy, LLC, last modified 2016.


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