Treating Addiction With Jewish Values

Messages from Jewish tradition to help combat substance abuse and other addictions

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional & Contemporary Sources, edited by Dayle A. Friedman (Jewish Lights).

Treatment for the multifaceted problems of addiction focuses on the thinking and the behavior of the addict. The pastoral caregiver is the professional best able to address the spiritual aspects of addiction. His or her task is to frame the problem of addiction in a spiritual context and to help the addict replace an addictive pattern with spiritually oriented thought patterns and behaviors.

The pastoral caregiver can frame addiction in a spiritual context by using biblical and midrashic images. For example, the pastoral caregiver might present the story of the Exodus of the children Israel 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 Hebrews were given over into slavery. Addiction comes from a Latin root meaning “to give oneself over.”

pillsAddiction 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.

Awareness of God

The great Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught that cravings and addictions destroy our awareness of God, and destroy the awe of God that every Jew has deep within his or her heart. Addictions are at one end of a continuum. Every day, each of us has thoughts and behavior we don’t want, such as anger, jealousy, or cravings for food, wealth, or sex. We can become enslaved to any of these experiences because they appear to offer pleasure, prestige, or salvation from what we think ails us. Our normal, everyday cravings can become addictions when influenced by the right combination of genetic predisposition, unusual stress, or extended consumption.

Rabbi Nachman teaches 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. Addiction says, I need, I want, I can’t cope with this. Recover and spirituality say, I am in God’s presence, I am here to do God’s will. Anything I can’t handle, God will. Our tradition provides many means of improving our connection with God and of understanding God’s will for us.

Prayer, Commandments, Charity

The key to recovery, prevention, and self-mastery is to develop a strong set of healthy responses to stress and to those situations that trigger craving as well as addictive thinking and behavior. One role of the pastoral caregiver is to teach the recovering person how to re­spond to people, situations, and stress in a spiritually directed way. The pastoral caregiver can help the addicted person develop spiritual resources, using tools such as prayer, mitzvot (commandments), and tzedakah (charity).

Prayer and meditation are perhaps the most obvious tools that the pastoral caregiver can give to the recovering person or family member. The pastoral caregiver can help the individual use the reading and the singing of prayers as a means of expanding awareness and un­derstanding of God. It may be particularly helpful to assist the individual in taking on specific daily practices, such as reciting prayers on awakening and before going to sleep, or beginning to recite birkhot hanehenim, the blessings assigned by tradition to mark both ordinary and extraordinary experiences of daily life.

Similarly, the pastoral caregiver might help the individual develop meditation practices to ex­pand the immediate awareness and experience of the holy, and how to use that experience in the service of mastery of feelings and cravings. Persons in recovery may be strengthened and encouraged by meditating regularly on particular verses, the divine name, or chants from tradition.

In addition to prayer and meditation, connecting the recovering son or family member to the practice of mitzvot can provide a spiritual anchor. The Book of Proverbs teaches, “Know God in all your ways.” Keeping God constantly in mind is a spiritual discipline that has great value in the treatment and prevention of addictions. Regular performance of mitzvot accomplishes this. Although “mitzvah” is usu­ally translated as “commandment,” we see mitzvah as a deed connecting us to our Higher Power, and thus every mitzvah is a spiritual deed.

For example, mitzvot connected to eating help enhance a person’s awareness of God. As part of recovery from food addiction, the pastoral caregiver might teach the use of the berakhah (blessing) to change the experience of eating. In pausing to say a berakhah, the person cultivates an awareness and experience of the Source of all food, thus transforming a mundane act into a holy experience, a moment of connection with God. Regular recitation of the berakhah is a spiritual discipline that can bolster the spirit of the addicted person.

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. The Jewish pastoral caregiver needs to address this issue. Torah, Psalms, and rabbinic and Hasidic literature all stress the concept of surrender to God’s will. For example, Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] teaches, “Do God’s will as if it was your will.”

In addition, Jewish practices can also be a means of turning one’s life over to a Higher Power. For example, Shabbat is a dramatic 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. Pastoral caregivers can help people in recovery begin to embrace Shabbat observance and connect them to community as they do so.

Discover More

Balaam the Prophet

The infamous story of the prophet with the talking donkey demonstrates the Bible's awareness that powers of divination were not limited to Israelite seers.