In the interest of full disclosure, I am not Jewish; but having written here previously about aspects of Christian, Buddhist and Taoist spirituality as it impacts issues of addiction and recovery, and given how many members of the Jewish faith there are in the U.S. and the New York area, it only seems right to address how this tradition has treated these matters so important to us all.
Having spent the better part of my life fascinated by them, I see religions as languages: ways of talking about matters of deepest concern through particular cultural lenses. I see spirituality as the universal aspect or essence of religion, when it is healthy. Spirituality, as many are finding, can be practiced outside of a religious context; whereas religion becomes empty or even dangerous without its spiritual core. However, when that core is working, we can learn from the wisdom of the great traditions, including ones not our own. This is the work of translation, of discovering how to express religious concepts in a modern framework to make them more accessible.
For those belonging to one of these faiths, there can be even greater benefits, assuming it is important to your sense of identity and that your experience of your tradition has been mostly positive. That is a question only you can answer. Many people in recovery have had painful experiences with religion, and “God” is a word they have no use for. We need to honor that. But for many others, their religious background has been a source of strength. We need to honor that, too. I hope this dive into how Judaism has wrestled with recovery will be helpful to those practicing it, and to those outside it or any religion.
Judaism and Recovery
When it comes to Judaism and its relationship to addiction and recovery, one of the biggest hurdles has been admitting the problem in the first place. Sound familiar? An article from AmericanAddictionCenters.org entitled “What Judaism-Based Addiction Treatments Exist?” notes that there have been “some long-standing myths associated with abuse in the Jewish community.” These include:
- People who practice Judaism are protected from addiction.
- Only Jews who have become alienated from their faith develop substance abuse issues.
- Substance abuse is a sign of moral failure.
- Orthodox Jews do not use alcohol or illicit drugs.
- There is no need for addiction recovery programs that incorporate the tenets of Judaism.
The article goes on to reveal that despite these beliefs, however, “research studies indicate that nearly 20 percent of individuals of the Jewish faith have a family history of addictive behaviors. In Israel, there is about a 13 percent lifetime prevalence rate of addiction, relatively consistent with the rates of substance abuse from many other industrialized countries.”
Although it is well-known that addictions cross all demographic barriers, it is understandable why a relatively small community that has experienced so much judgment and discrimination from the outside world would be reluctant to readily admit that these issues affect them the same way they do everyone else. Abraham Twerski, a Hasidic rabbi who founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and author of Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception, writes that “nowhere in the years of my training to become a rabbi was I taught anything about alcoholism, nor do I recall any attention given to the problem either in rabbinic journals or at conventions.” He also notes that while the frequency of alcoholism among Jews is still less than in the general population, “the same cannot be said of chemical dependency involving other mood altering drugs.”
Rabbi Twerski also notes something that is often true of small, close-knit subcultures, which is that they tend to be secretive—again, often for good reasons, historically.
Jews have a tendency to be most secretive about emotional disturbances within their families, and often avoid seeking help, for fear of exposure and shame. Furthermore, since family participation is crucial in the recovery process, parents may have concerns that they will meet other members of their community at a treatment facility, and that their private nightmare will be “known to others.”
Of course, anyone who has wrestled with addiction or has spent any time in “the rooms” knows that “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” This is a case in which something that developed to protect people has turned against them and become harmful.
Fortunately, this situation has begun to change within the Jewish community. Rabbi Twerski is among those who have developed recovery programs with a distinctly Jewish accent. In his clinical work with addicts, Twerski combined the ideas of Mussar—Jewish ethics—with the Twelve-Step Program and modern psychology.
Twerski was impressed when he attended AA meetings by the sincerity, selflessness, and commitment to helping fellow sufferers that he saw there. He said that the recovering alcoholics he met in the meetings “will often exhibit a sense of responsibility far superior to that of the non-alcoholic in relationship to their families, friends, and God.”
He developed a practical approach that blended the Twelve Steps with the most relevant aspects of Judaism. He noticed that many of the key ideas in the Steps matched up well with those in the Talmud—for example, the way the first two Steps, with their emphasis on admitted our powerlessness over addiction, were in tune with the Talmud’s teaching that human beings are powerless to overcome their darker inclinations without divine help—a Higher Power, in other words. And that the taking of a “fearless personal inventory” of Steps 4 and 5 lined up with the idea of heshbon hanefesh (personal inventory) in the Musar, right down to both citing the need for sharing the inventory with at least one other trusted person; and that Step 9 and Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) both stressed the importance of seeking forgiveness and making amends to those we have wronged.
Twerski observed that “There is an important similarity between the Torah approach to behavior and the Twelve Step program approach,” in that both insist on stopping the behavior first, rather than endlessly analyzing and discussing it. He found this combination of Jewish spiritual and ethical teachings and the Steps worked well for his Jewish clients.
To gain acceptance for this approach, Twerski had to overcome a popular misconception among Jews that Twelve-Step programs were “Christian” in nature, and that Jews should have nothing to do with them. As his fellow rabbi, Yaacov Kravitz, writes, “The language of spirituality alienates some Jews. For example, many Jews in recovery feel that Step Three in the 12-step program–turning one’s life and one’s will over to God–seems more ‘Christian’ than Jewish.” But Rabbi Kravitz found that if the fact that “the Torah, Psalms, and rabbinic and Hasidic literature all stress the concept of surrender to God’s will”, and the translation of the idea of “God” for “Higher Power” is made, many Jews can find the same support in Program as others.
Rabbi Kravitz links Jewish practices such as observing Shabbat, the traditional day of rest and attention to God, to this “practice of doing God’s will. On Shabbat, we stop doing what we want to do, and do what God wants us to do. We simply rest and allow ourselves to be in tune with creation, enjoying food, family, and community; praying; and studying. Through Shabbat, a recovering person might find an opportunity to experience turning himself or herself over to God in a very positive, and Jewish, context.”
Rabbi Kravitz points out that from a spiritual perspective, all human beings are addicts of a kind—trying to make ourselves feel better and get through our lives by using things that aren’t up for the job—which explains why the world is so full of confusion, conflict, and pain.
He illustrates this by showing how a caregiver “can frame addiction in a spiritual context by using biblical…images,” such as those from the story of the people of Israel’s Exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt, presenting it “as a model for the journey from addiction to recovery. Egypt (in Hebrew) literally means the double narrow place; it is the place where the Hebrews were given over into slavery. Addiction comes from a Latin root meaning ‘to give oneself over.’”
Addiction to substances or experiences is slavery, addiction is a state in which one is powerless and out of control. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is also 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.
He relates how one of the great Hasidic teachers, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “taught that cravings and addictions destroy our awareness of God”. For “God,” we might read, “Higher Power,” or “that which is best, brightest and most true and valuable in us,” our awareness of the preciousness and sacredness of existence. For those whose Judaism is meaningful, whether as a religious faith or a deep sense of cultural identity, using these ancient stories can be a way of connecting to a larger community of support, as can the practices of singing or reciting daily prayers, the blessing of ordinary acts such as eating a meal, and kindness and generosity to others.
Whatever we believe about something beyond the visible world, the psychology of this is clear: holding a consistent vision of what we cherish most can act as a counterweight to the impulses of addiction. Rabbi Kravitz says that “the way to rectify our cravings is to bring our knowledge of God into our hearts. Our goal is to create constant awareness of God. This spiritual awareness is incompatible with addictive thinking and behavior…Our tradition provides many means of improving our connection with God and of understanding God’s will for us.”
Rabbi Shais Taub offers an interesting way of looking at the nature of addiction that he calls the “Canary in the Coal Mine Phenomenon”, which he says he “learned…by being a rabbi who specializes in working with addicts.”
The gist of his idea is that “most people can live without seeking out spiritual consciousness but the addict — the true addict — cannot. That’s what makes the addict the spiritual canary”, like the real canaries that miners used to take with them into the mines to learn if it was safe, or if there was poisonous gas in the shafts. The canaries were more sensitive to the gas than people, so if they stopped singing, the miners knew there was danger. Rabbi Taub compares the sensitivity of the birds to that of addicts:
The addict, for reasons we do not fully understand, is critically sensitive to any kind of spiritual deficiency. They live and die by their ability to connect with God…In short, if a certain idea or practice is spiritually harmful to human beings, the addict will be the first to show symptoms. Conversely, if a certain idea or practice promotes spiritual wellness in human beings, it is evident in the addict by their relief from the compulsion to use. Basically, if you want to know what is spiritual poison for a human being, you’ve got to ask a spiritual canary.
This is potentially a powerful way of reframing how we see our addiction, a kind of psychological judo that reveals unexpected value where we had only seen problems. It can empower us to accept our vulnerability as something that not only requires us to be vigilant in our own behavior, but gives us something valuable to offer the world as witnesses to psychological and spiritual sanity and health for all people.
There are now many recovery programs that incorporate the principles of Judaism. You can find if there are such programs in your area by using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator, or by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
In 1980 a group known as JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) was created under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the New York Board of Rabbis. Besides being a resource center, JACS offers two annual weekend retreats for recovering persons and their family members to focus on Jewish spiritual issues. In many communities, local JACS affiliates have been created to stimulate community awareness, provide information and resources, and provide a support network for Jews in recovery and those who love them.
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