Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs

As a culture that values sobriety, individual responsibility, and health, Judaism is wary of substances that may cause more damage than the enjoyment they may bring their users.

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A tradition which values clear thinking and responsible conduct cannot but view drunkenness as an evil. The shikur, the drunkard, may be the butt of many jokes, but he is in an essential way held separate from the community: he or she may not perform religious, legal, or political functions and is even forbidden to pray until sober. The clear implication of these sources is that should we decide to use alcohol we must strictly control our consumption of it.

Once again, we are reminded that Judaism holds us responsible for failure to treat our health with care and respect. This point is driven home with special urgency given our awareness of the destructive nature of alcoholism, a disease of which our ancestors were but dimly aware. The costs of alcoholism, measured by the personal and social wreckage it leaves in its wake, require that we confront this disease openly and directly, doing whatever we can as a community for those who come to us in their struggle for recovery.

Twelve-Step Groups

One of the most effective programs of recovery from alcoholism is the "twelve-step" method pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous and utilized as well in the struggle against our addictions. This approach has saved countless lives and therefore must be considered a blessing

It is also the case, however, that meetings of "twelve-step" organizations often involve Christian religious practices such as the recitation of the "Lord's Prayer." This raises a serious difficulty for Jew, for the integrity of our own religious identity demands that we refrain from adopting ritual and liturgical practices that have become associated with other faiths. A Jewish member of a "twelve-step" group might either stand in respectful silence during the prayer or recite an appropriate substitute such as Psalm 23. We are especially grateful to those in our community who work to incorporate the insights of the "twelve-step" method into a Jewish communal and spiritual setting.

Drugs

The same admonition [as was mentioned regarding alcohol] applies to other addictive and mind-altering substances. The tradition, as we have seen, permits the use of drugs as long as we do so in service of a legitimate medical purpose. We may administer even the most powerful chemicals, provided that: the goal is to combat disease or to control pain; that the chemicals are prescribed by physicians following protocols established and accepted by the medical profession and by the law; and that the drugs are taken under the careful supervision of qualified medical personnel.

Outside of those strict limitations, the taking of drugs is forbidden because they are injurious to physical or mental health. Judaism does not countenance the use of drugs for recreation, nor does it recognize any religious value gained from the "expansion of consciousness" by chemical means. These substances should be avoided, and we should do our utmost to see to it that those addicted to them are given the assistance they need to break that dependency.

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Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., is associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.