Through long-term qualitative and quantitative research, scientists have uncovered a direct link between ultra-Orthodox and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The research was conducted by top-level researchers for the past ten years and includes surveys, focus groups, observations, therapy sessions, and brain scans of over 3,000 ultra-Orthodox participants throughout the world.
The idea for the research was originally conceived by Dr. Andrew Cohen, a secular Jew and a renowned psychiatric researcher who specializes in OCD. He was inspired to do the study when he witnessed a number of habits of ultra-Orthodox Jews during a wedding of a distant relative he attended. "OCD is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by having uncontrollable thoughts and ritualized behavior that a person feels compelled to perform," explains Dr. Cohen. "When I saw my relatives and their community at the wedding obsessing over particular customs, as if they were impulses or involuntary, I immediately went into my research mode."
Dr. Cohen describes the parallel by explaining that having OCD means having a compulsion to continually perform a specific ritual in order to eliminate a specific obsession. "For some OCD patients this may mean turning around three times, which is the compulsion, to make sure that no one is following them, which is the obsession. For the ultra-Orthodox, the compulsion is to pray three times a day, while the obsession is to gain god's favor or avoid god's punishment."
Just as with typical OCD patients, the relief from performing the compulsive behavior never lasts. Often times performing the compulsive behavior actually makes the obsessive thoughts stronger. Dr. Cohen theorizes that this is what causes many people to become more and more religious.
Dr. Cohen explains that most people with OCD can be categorized into one of five categories, while ultra-Orthodox behavior falls into the same five categories.
1. Washers fear contamination which often manifests in cleaning or hand-washing behaviors. "Many core rituals in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, such as hand washing a specific number times, the mikvah, and toveling kitchenware, are focused on cleanliness which causes its community members also to be preoccupied with cleanliness. We particularly see this during Passover preparation, when people will even check pages of books for bread crumbs."
2. Checkers repetitively check things to try to prevent harm or danger. "This is another category that is central to ultra-Orthodox behavior. They will check rice grain by grain or excessively sift flower to find unholy or unkosher matter. When getting ready for Shabbat, they will tear toilet paper, turn the light of in the fridge. The entire concept of being shomer nagiya (not touching someone of the opposite sex) to prevent unholy thoughts is a checker type of behavior. They are repeating certain behaviors in order to prevent what they perceive as harm or danger."
3. Doubters and sinners fear that if everything isn't done perfectly then they will be punished. "This is ultra-Orthodoxy in a nut shell. Their strive for perfection is motivated by their fear of god's wrath. We see this in all types of behaviors - not wearing cotton and wool together, lighting candles exactly on time, wearing a kippah, and praying three times a day. One of our subjects so feared god's wrath that he wouldn't take his tzitzit off during sex."
4. Counters and arrangers obsess over order and symmetry. They often have superstitions about numbers, colors, words, or arrangements. "While we saw this category in the ultra-Orthodox behavior, we found a much higher correlation between the symptoms of counters and arrangers in Kabbalist followers."
5. Hoarders compulsively hoard things that they don't need or use and can not care for. "We found that ultra-Orthodox families have an obsession with hoarding kids. Just like animal hoarders, they continue to produce more children despite not being able to care for the ones that they already have."
Dr. Cohen said that he is interested in expanding his study to other religious groups.