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Op-Ed: Judaism and Addiction

by Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff

The catastrophic numbers of drug users, deaths and overdoses only pale in comparison to the nightmare of a 90% relapse rate. This plague has not passed over the Jewish people.

Does Judaism have anything to offer in the recovery of those battling addictions? Can poring over the weekly portion, mumbling through mincha prayers, tying tefillin, kindling candles and sitting in a Sukkah really be the magic pills to eradicating the epidemic of alcohol, drug, sex, food and gambling addictions?

It may sound foolish, but don’t be so foolish to not understand that Yiddishkeit is indeed the exact shining key to unlocking the elusive chamber that contains the treasure to finally healing the addict forever. In reality, Judaism is the gateway solution; it helps to transform one’s life by discovering the actual purpose of why we are here.

The addict is all about selfishness. It is a nasty dangerous business of self indulgent, hoggish, egocentric narcissism. The user is devout and devoted; it is his religion. And it’s not a two-day-a-year religion for him. He is orthodox about it. Every minute of the day he is either using or praying to be using. And he will sacrifice his own family, even his only son Isaac. He wants to be high and then get even higher; he wants to be the highest. Which essentially means no one and no thing can be higher. That is his goal and the purpose of his life.

Enter Judaism. The practices, Torah, texts, stories, deeds and mystical teachings are all about negating one’s self centered, ungenerous, greedy plots and plans. The negation occurs by serving others; and by serving the highest entity Who is higher than the mortal seeking to get high. A complete transformative focus must be the new goal. How can I connect with the Creator who awoke me from my slumber this morning? And how can I selflessly connect to His creations living in my community and world?

The spark of connection is initiated via the mitzvah and the ongoing contact is protracted and propagated through continued acts and teachings that define one’s very purpose in life. Was the whole world created, and survived over the centuries, for me to be born and wake up this morning in order to get wasted? Or is there a deeper meaning as to the very purpose of my life; so I shouldn’t waste it.

“Judaism may work or help in other aspects of life, but addiction is different!” So goes the mantra of some in the recovery world. But we are reminded recently of the commemoration of the prison release of the blessed soul of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe, also known as the the Frierdiker Rebbe, the Previous Rebbe. After being rescued from Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1940, the Frierdiker Rebbe arrived on the shores of New York. Upon reaching dry ground, he was told that the western world has dissimilar and divergent goals and purposes than his sacred old world books. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak firmly straightened up from his wheelchair and said, “America is nisht anderisht!” American is not different.

From a righteous man, who understood what it took to be freed from a Soviet prison cell – who went on to lay the foundation for the global renaissance of Torah – we can learn that recovery “is nisht anderisht!” Recovery is also not different. We need Judaism.

As Jews, we indeed do have tools that assist us from escaping from our imprisonment. We can rebuild our personal growth, the kind of unselfish growth that leads to discovering our very purpose in this world. Stopping addictive behavior is not about the end of a specific action; it is the complete love, loyalty and purposeful enthusiasm for a new all-consuming positive stimulant.

Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff has lectured in over 600 cities throughout the world to communities, campuses and corporations. He is the founder of the Center for Jewish Addiction Rehabilitation and the director of the Florida licensed, kosher, Tikvah Lake Recovery & Spa. 24/7 phone: 954.644.5040 website: TikvahLake.com.

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#1 Comment By no one special On August 2, 2017 @ 8:31 pm

Sounds like Rabbi Dr (M.D.) Twerski’s approach.

#2 Comment By Hurt On August 2, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

You write the addict is about selfishness. Maybe it’s about hurt? Maybe they are trying to escape what they feel about religion? How many addicts have felt embarrassed by those symbolizing religion i.e. Rabbaim, Yeshivos, Chaverim, Parents, etc.. If we realize that every person is created in the image of Hashem, and recognize that people have unique qualities, maybe we would be able to respect people more and not make them feel inferior and lead them on the path to destruction.

#3 Comment By Not Wrong On August 3, 2017 @ 9:09 am

But on some level, hurt is about selfishness. A person with no yeshus can’t be hurt, because he has no metzius.

#4 Comment By Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff On August 3, 2017 @ 9:22 am

Yiddishkeit is not about embarrassment – it is about understanding our very purpose in the world.

#5 Comment By Dovber On August 3, 2017 @ 7:24 am

Then why do you run a rehab center with gourmet food, aromatherapy, massages, and other things that feed the narcissism? Kindly explain.

#6 Comment By Because On August 3, 2017 @ 9:11 am

For some children, the way to get them to come out from under the table, is to climb under there and lead them out by the hand.

#7 Comment By Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff On August 3, 2017 @ 9:20 am

Very good question. At a farbregen we teach about holding back – but we serve cookies. On Shabbos we first say boray prehagefen and then mikadesh hashabbos. Often we try to attract one to the event or moment and then we transform and teach. And when saving lives – we certainly try and endeavor to do everything possible to attract one to the life saving facility.
Thank you for your important comment. TikvahLake.com

#8 Comment By Disagree On August 3, 2017 @ 11:54 am

You are confusing some typical behaviors of an addict with the causes and factors that led him/her into addiction. In the orthodox community, the causes are normally associated with negative experiences in Yeshiva. They view yiddishkeit as the ‘sam hamoves’. Showing them that they are ‘wrong’ and have been acting ‘selfishly ‘ will simply exasperate their feelings of guilt and being judged. The methodology espoused by the author of this post appears, in my opinion, to be inefficacious at best and possibly dangerous.

#9 Comment By Joe On August 3, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

I agree and disagree with you, I do not think it is yeshivos that are at the core of the problem but they may view yedeshkiet as samhamoves, and although well intentioned maybe an article like this continues such notions

#10 Comment By it’s a disease On August 4, 2017 @ 12:16 am

addiction is an illness. a spiritual one. god chose people to give this disease to. things can feed the addiction but ultimately it’s a disease.

#11 Comment By thank you On August 4, 2017 @ 12:18 am

thank you for writing about addiction which affects so many of us and particularly for adding sex to the list. I am a sex addict and so many times people shy away from even adding it to the list! it’s a real addiction.

#12 Comment By Mrs. Y On August 4, 2017 @ 7:47 am

Kol hakavod to the Doctor and his life saving treatment! Please ignore the negative/hateful comments because you are doing good work. You are helping people that most would turn their nose up at and look down as the scum of society. Even Gentiles can recover from addiction with Torah – through the Noahide Code!!!!
May G-d almighty bless you, Dr. Nesenoff, to continue and even to expand your treatment facilities to more locations!!!