But lacking Jewish knowledge, the pork-loving Traigs had no context in which to place Jennifer’s increasingly obsessive Jewish behavior. To them, not touching the lights on Shabbat was as bizarre a ritual as those Jennifer created to answer her compulsions. Her bat mitzvah lessons with elderly Mr. Stein only enlarged the territory in which her scrupulosity could run riot.
“Mr. Stein did not know, when he told me that milk and meat required separate dishes, that I would decide that they required separate toilets as well,” she writes in the bemused tone she maintains throughout her book. Thanks to scrupulosity, such obsessive-compulsive rituals as incessant hand-washing became, she says, “just that—rituals.” The intrusive thoughts and relentless ruminations on theological matters—which lend scrupulosity the nickname “the doubting disease”—all but paralyzed her. “The impulses themselves were not religious at all,” she explains. “They took on that framework. But they could have been anything. Because religion was something I had always been interested in, that was the shape it took for me.”
“OCD tends to hit you in the things that you care about,” says Carol E. Watkins, a psychiatrist at Northern County Psychiatric Associates in Maryland.
Everyone has intrusive thoughts, says Jonathan D. Huppert, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “But most people with OCD tend to respond to intrusive thoughts with fear. They fight the fear with rituals….The thoughts appear to prove that they are bad people.”
The fear of God does exist as a concept in Judaism, adds Huppert, an Orthodox Jew who has treated observant Jews with scrupulosity and has conducted research on the condition. “But it’s not supposed to be a fear that makes you paralyzed in your functioning.” For both Huppert and Watkins, the line dividing piety from pathology is where faith becomes distress and impairs a person’s ability to function.
“People with scrupulosity might feel they have to say a particular prayer just right,” Watkins says. “So they might make their family sit while they start the prayer over and over again.”
“You know it’s pathological if you’re focusing on one or two commandments to the exclusion of everything else,” Traig says. “You’ll violate Shabbat to shower because you think you’ve incurred a ritual impurity. There were a couple of things that were very important for me to observe, but other things 1 really didn’t care about.” Keeping ritually clean was one. But she had no qualms about lying to her parents in an effort to conceal her condition, she says.
As Traig neared the end of high school, she began meeting with her synagogue’s new rabbi to learn to distinguish normative Judaism from her own improvisations. She also went into therapy to give her compulsions a reality check. “For me the process was more or less what is called cognitive behavior therapy. A lot of making me do things that I didn’t think 1 could do, and proving that it would not kill me,” she says.
Today Traig lives in San Francisco. She is a writer, and an Orthodox Jew. And although she knew lots of girls in high school with anorexia, she says she has never met another person who has suffered from scrupulosity. The publication of her memoir could change that.
She says she now feels the freedom to resist the impulses “that jump unbidden into my brain.” But naming her condition and treating it was a mixed blessing.
“You do lose the magic. It’s not God telling you to do this,” she says. “On the other hand, I think it makes the equation much less scary. A sufferer, with the help of therapy, [can] have a religious life governed by choices and not by psychiatric imperative.”
David Holzel is a writer in Maryland. He is the creator of the webzine The Jewish Angle.