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Br J Med Psychol. 1992 Sep;65 ( Pt 3):223-35.

Mysticism and psychosis: the fate of Ben Zoma.

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Jerusalem Mental Health Center, Israel.


This paper examines the link between psychosis and mystical study through the cases of four young men who 'entered the garden' of Jewish mystical speculation and subsequently became psychotic. The role of such study as a precipitating factor is suggested, as three had no signs of disturbance prior to their mystical studies. All had suffered personal losses, and their choice of mystical texts and rites showed that their attraction to mysticism included a search for atonement for guilt they felt over their loss. The features of normative mysticism are presented with each case and it is apparent that hallucinations, grandiose and paranoid delusions, and social withdrawal, are phenomena that do not distinguish the psychotic from the mystic. Diagnosis of psychosis is made on the basis of duration of the state, ability to control entry into the state and the associated deterioration of habits, particularly the neglect of daily religious duties. These findings emphasize the need for the examining psychiatrist to be aware of the cultural background, despite the presence of seemingly florid psychopathology. Four eminent Rabbis entered the garden of mystical speculation. Ben Azzai glimpsed and died. Ben Zoma glimpsed and was damaged (lost his sanity). Elisha ben Avuyah lost his faith. Rabbi Akiva departed in peace.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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