Treating Addiction With Jewish Values

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

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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 astate 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).

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Rabbi Yaacov Kravitz

Rabbi Yaacov Kravitz is a licensed psychologist and President at the Center for Spiritual Intelligence, Inc.