Ask the Rabbis // Addiction
What does the Torah teach us about addiction?
Addiction is highlighted in the Torah’s account of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, where the One Who Spoke and the World Came into Being instructed us not to get so caught up in our subjective assumptions about God that we would carve out and worship an image reflecting those assumptions. In other words, addiction is the act of replacing a truth—or need, or innate desire—with an artificial facsimile that eventually supersedes the very truth it was originally intended to represent. It is often born out of one’s struggle and subsequent failure to reach the truth in question, the frustration of which can drive one to such desperation that one resorts to, say, a Golden Calf. And the healing of addiction, in turn, involves melting down the image and lapping it up, internalizing that which had been so unwholesomely externalized, to restore to the essential self what had belonged there all along.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
It is human nature, declares Torah, to err: “For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). Torah also recognizes the corollary: that we have the capacity to change our ways. And so our tradition offers us a path—through sacrifices, prayer or self-examination—to repentance, renewal, reconciliation and recovery.
One of my favorite biblical quotes is from Genesis 4:6-7. God has accepted Abel’s offering but rejected the one from Cain. Yet God doesn’t give up on Cain. He offers him some straight talk: “Why are you angry? If you are to do what is good, shouldn’t you hold your head high? And if you don’t do what is good, sin is crouching at the door. It wants you, but you can rule over it.”
Temptation is there. Always ready to pounce. Always ready to snare us so that we say the wrong word, or waste time, or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or too much junk food.
But we can also be the master over it. Not because we resort to prayer or turn to a Higher Power to pull us through—that is not what God says to Cain—but because we can take charge of our own actions.
The first step is acknowledging our human nature. We will fail over and over. We can also make good choices and get on the right path again.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
The first biblical evidence of preventive medicine, the Sabbath, also served as a healing plan for the Israelites emerging from slavery. They needed to learn how to shavat va’yinafash—to rest and re-soul. The penalty for working more than six days a week, that is, work addiction, was death by stoning. The Torah arrived long before addiction treatment and recovery programs became available, and it also includes a tale of an option for parents to have a “rebellious son” stoned to death if he is “a glutton and stubborn drunk” who does not listen and steals from his parents. Tradition holds that no family ever did so. The Talmud also discusses where and how to draw the line with things that are addictive, including Torah study itself.
Today, Jewish law and practice follow the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh—saving a life—through many programs that use Jewish approaches to seek to save the lives of those addicted, actively intervening and supporting addicts and their families to seek out the many forms of support for recovery from addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, tobacco, sex, food, video games, smart phones, work and food. I recommend Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception, and, because successful recovery almost always involves spiritual development, Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s chapter, “12 Steps Revisited through a Jewish Spiritual Lens,” in Seeking and Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Guidance and Direction. There is also help available for “Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others” at www.jacs.org.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18): This presumes self-love first, something that’s hard for the many who grapple with addiction. Addiction clouds self-awareness and leads to self-destructive rather than self-loving behavior, through which love for others suffers too.
To love these neighbors, we can remind them of just how worthy their true selves are, to provide a clear beacon for their recovery. We can sit with them in their pain, ask the right questions and help them obtain the help they need. We must also understand their situation and educate ourselves about addiction, so we can love them with both accountability and support. We should consult experts and listen to those in recovery; we should know and be sensitive.
“Don’t set stumbling blocks before the blind”: Likewise, we are enjoined to help those with addictive tendencies steer clear of what might make them stumble. Don’t build simchas around alcohol, nor be casual with controlled substances (food included, which can be complicated for us Jews). We mustn’t set the kryptonite of temptation before those super-people who are taking it one day at a time.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
If you’re looking for a cautionary tale about drinking in the Torah, you need read no further than the story of Noah, early in the book of Genesis. But addiction is not about a rough night of drinking too much, and I think our Torah teaches us about appetites, desires, control and moderation. Torah does not demand abstinence; we are asked to enjoy the material pleasures of the world. We read in Deuteronomy: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless Adonai your God.” Part of the illness of addiction is never being satisfied: You are sure that the next drink, the next bet, the next sexual partner, the next hit will satisfy.
Yet we must eat, and we must bless. So Torah is clear on appetites—be they carnal or epicurean, you can’t always get what you want. The Book of Leviticus is a guide to moderation; it comes to teach us that if we cannot control our appetites, then our temptations are forbidden to us altogether. Recognizing the seduction of the forbidden, Torah sets up strict boundaries between permitted and forbidden and warns of the dangers of transgression. Ultimately, Torah says: If you can’t control yourself, separate yourself from the temptation altogether.
Addiction teaches the same lesson.
Rabbi Sari Laufer
Congregation Rodeph Sholom
New York, NY
Addiction can be framed in a spiritual context by using biblical stories. For example, one might consider the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as a model for the journey from addiction to recovery. Egypt (mitzrayim in Hebrew) literally means the double narrow place; it is the place where the Israelites became slaves or were given into slavery. Addiction comes from a Latin root meaning “to give oneself over.” Someone who suffers from an addiction is enslaved. Addiction is a state in which one is powerless and out of control.
The story of the exodus from Egypt can easily be understood as the personal story of each addicted Jew emerging from his or her narrow place, tempted repeatedly to backslide but struggling always to reach the promised land of recovery, serenity and spirituality.
There is another way to use Jewish sources when confronting addiction. Rabbinic teachings suggest that every person has a yetzer hatov, the impulse to do what is good, and a yetzer hara, the impulse to do what is bad. An addiction can be seen as the expression of yetzer hara. Not that the person is evil, but that he or she is under the influence of impulses that produce harmful results. Every human being has a yetzer hara. When one struggles with an addiction, the yetzer hara has not been controlled or managed effectively. Ideally it is controlled by the yetzer hatov.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
The Torah is a Torah of life and is committed to a lifestyle that sustains a sound mind in a healthy body. There is a mitzvah, “V’nishmartem me’od le’nafshotaychem”—“You shall carefully guard your life” (Deuteronomy 4:15). Addiction violates this norm because it drives us to behaviors that jeopardize health and—as in the case of drugs—may cause death.
In addition, the Torah is committed to free will. People acting under duress are acquitted of violations. Being compelled by addiction robs a person of his or her freedom of action; therefore, he or she lacks moral responsibility, and this undercuts the moral and ethical life.
The Torah does not offer a direct diagnosis of addiction or a specific course of action for a cure. However, the disciplines and tempered life of halacha are designed to give structures of meaning and sensible limits that support a free, non-addicted, moderate way of living. It is widely known that traditional Jewish temperate drinking—such as serving wine on religious and happy occasions—rather than total abstention lowers rates of alcoholism and overindulgence.
In particular, Shabbat—a day when we are commanded to desist from work—is designed to prevent addiction to work, or workaholism. In conjunction with counseling and help in confronting problems, this way of living may reduce addiction.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Adam and Eve ate from the tree because they wanted knowledge. What they got was self-knowledge, not insight but rather a crippling self-consciousness, the first sign of which was their sudden shame at being naked. Since that time, it has become ingrained in human nature to be uncomfortable in our own skin. Some of us feel that discomfort with self more intensely than others, but it is the universal curse of all humankind.
Ten generations after Creation, seeing a “new world” before him, Noah tried to reverse the paradigm and fight self-consciousness with self-obliteration. He “planted a vineyard…and got drunk.” Noah was not out to have a good time; he was on a mission to blot out self-consciousness. And thus he drank until “he fell asleep naked in his tent.” He felt no shame; he felt nothing.
This is the dilemma—the pain of self-awareness on the one extreme and the comfort of self-obliteration on the other. Neither is very promising. To become free, we must find a third option, which is self-transcendence, to rise above ego. As long as we do not have the tools to rise above ourselves, however, we’ll do the next best thing and just destroy ourselves. Hence the decidedly choice terms for serious self-medication: wasted, wrecked, trashed, etc.
Contrary to popular misconception, addiction isn’t a problem; addiction is actually a solution—a vicious, brutal, devastating solution, but a solution nonetheless. And if that’s all you’ve got to work with, then you will always come back to it no matter what.
Addiction is but the human condition writ large. We’re not happy when we’re stuck in ourselves; we’re not happy when we’re destroying ourselves; we’re only happy once we get over ourselves. And that is recovery from addiction—when I realize that the only way I can truly function is through extreme selflessness and surrender to a Power greater than myself.
Rabbi Shais Taub