Addiction is a disease that moves across demographics like a plague. It doesn’t seem to recognize any boundaries of social status, regions, or belief systems. However, the Jewish community, like most of the communities that have been touched by addiction, have a lot to learn about the disease.
A Canadian study looked at the perceptions of addiction in Jewish communities and how addiction has affected Jewish people. It found that many didn’t believe that addiction really affects Jewish people, and even more, blame people with alcoholism for their condition. However, many do consider addiction to be a disease.
Despite the taboo nature of addiction in many circles, the study found that a good portion of the Jewish community was affected by addiction directly or through a friend or family member. As many as 20 percent had a family history of addiction.
Still, many people in the Jewish community have taken to fighting the disease of addiction head-on, both inside and outside of their communities. Many are deeply involved in addiction treatment, 12-step programs, and other means of addressing the problem. What’s more, Jewish traditions and faith can be used as a valuable asset when addressing addiction. In general, addressing a person’s spiritual health may be one of the most important tactics in addiction treatment.
Learn more about how Judaism responds to addiction and how members of the Jewish community can seek treatment both inside and outside of their communities.
Substance Use in the Scriptures
The Hebrew Bible has many references to alcohol and drunkenness, typically related to wine. Scripture offers both warnings against excessive drinking and practical wisdom as to the helpful use of alcohol. For instance, Noah drank wine to the point of getting drunk in the book of Genesis and in his drunkenness accidentally exposed himself, which was seen as shameful. In other texts, the scriptures look favorably on alcohol.
In Psalm 104, wine is listed among gifts of God that God should be praised and thanked for, calling it “wine that gladdens human hearts.” Wine is even part of the sacrifices given to God as instructed in Numbers 15, where animal sacrifices are given with drink offerings.
Alcohol was just as big a part of Jewish culture as it is today, but the Bible takes both a permissive and sober-minded cautionary stance on alcohol. Though drinking was allowed, many of the prophets warned against excessive drinking like Isaiah who said, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine.”
Not everyone was allowed to drink among the ancient Hebrews, though. Officiating Levitical priests and their sons were not allowed to drink when they entered the tent of meeting in the Tabernacle. And Kings that were facing big decisions were also admonished to abstain from alcohol.
But what happens when that overindulgence in wine, or any other addictive substance, becomes a substance use disorder? The scriptures often speak about addiction preventatively, warning that strong wine can lead a person astray. (Proverbs 20:1) However, there isn’t any mention of ancient 12-step programs or cognitive behavioral therapy in the Bible. Still, there are incredibly compelling parallels between addiction and humanity’s struggle with sin and God delivering his people from seemingly unbeatable enemies.
In Psalm 19, King David wrote, “Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins, that they may not have dominion over me; then shall I be faultless, and I shall be clear from great transgression.” This sounds like the appeal to a “Higher Power” that is prescribed in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction is out of your control, but placing it in God’s hands can be the key to recovery.
Addressing Addiction in Judaism
It doesn’t take an experienced rabbi to recognize the value of addressing spiritual health in addiction. In fact, it was a self-proclaimed alcoholic Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, that came to that conclusion. Wilson struggled with alcoholism for years, and he also struggled with the idea of God. He believed in a power greater than himself but struggled with anything beyond a vague understanding of what that power was. During his final detoxification in a hospital, he had a spiritual awakening.
He wrote of the experience, “Therefore, I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost.”
According to official authorities on addiction treatment like the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a chronic disease that affects the brain, but in many ways, it also affects a person’s spiritual well-being.
In an interesting HuffPo article, Rabbi Shais Taub calls people struggling with addiction “spiritual canaries” because he believes that addiction makes a person particularly sensitive to spiritual deficiencies. He writes, “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.”
Evidence-based approaches to addiction treatment are vital in effectively achieving sobriety, but spiritual growth and repair may be vital to the Jew that struggles with a substance use disorder. Plus, the parallels in the Jewish tradition can be a valuable source of encouragement. Jewish traditions are often focused on reminding its practitioners of their people’s past and how God delivered them from oppression.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the 18th century Hasidic movement in Breslov, often addressed addiction openly and taught that addiction hindered a person’s awareness of God. He also taught that renewing that knowledge of God was how you could remedy those compulsions.
Twelve-step programs that can address a person’s spiritual well-being and their focus on God, alongside addiction treatment, can be vital in achieving lasting addiction recovery.
Things to Learn
Like many Americans, Jewish communities have a few things to learn that can help their family members and neighbors get the help they need. The first is that addiction is a disease, not a mere moral failing or bad habit. It’s difficult for someone who has never encountered addiction to understand why a person can’t just stop doing something that’s harmful to them. It’s true that addiction usually starts with the decision to drink or use drugs excessively.
But diabetes also can start as a decision to eat in a way that’s unhealthy. In both cases, the result is the same: a disease that needs treatment. Removing the stigma from seeking help for addiction treatment can allow you, your friends, or your family members seek and receive the help that they need.
It’s also important to note that, even though addiction is chronic, it’s very treatable. Even a person that has relapsed several times can achieve lasting sobriety. In fact, there are even specific addiction treatment plans that are designed for people who are chronic relapsers. No one is a lost cause, and it’s never too late to seek treatment.
Finally, it’s important to realize that ignoring an addiction is a form of enabling. Not acknowledging addiction in friends and family members may be doing them harm. If you are developing a drinking problem, but the people closest to you never bring it up, you might assume that the problem is all in your head. You may think something like, “If my father, mother, or brother don’t see an issue with my drinking, then it must not be a problem.”
Lovingly addressing a problem makes it more of a real issue in the mind of someone struggling with a substance use disorder. You can’t make the decision to seek treatment for someone, but you can encourage them to do so.