Just a few minutes ago, Regina Spektor was chatting excitedly and laughing between sips of tea. Now, she’s shrinking to the far end of a sofa on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel, squinting her huge eyes and twisting her rotini-like hair. Inevitably, the subject of religion has come up. You’d think an artist whose current single mentions God 33 times would have her views on the concept all worked out, especially considering her well-known backstory: She’s a Russian Jew, whose family immigrated to the Bronx in 1989 for religious freedom. But no, she’s actually pretty wishy-washy on the whole subject: “I don’t even know half the time what exactly I believe,” she says, sighing impatiently. “I do know that in some moments, I’m sarcastic about religion, and sometimes, I’m in awe of it, and sometimes, I’m angry at it, and sometimes, I love it.” (From Are You There, God? It’s Me, Regina Spektor)
Yom Kippur is a day of serenity, fasting, prayer, contemplation, forgiveness and meditation. It derives its unique holiness from being all of these things. It is truly the “one day of the year” that the prayer services of the day mark it as being. But there is another dimension to this holiest of days. It is a day of freedom. In First Temple times, when the yovel/jubilee year arrived, the day of Yom Kippur that year marked the day of emancipation for slaves. The shofar sound of Yom Kippur was their call to leave their masters and become independent and productive people on their own. We are not privileged today with a Temple or with a yovel/jubilee year but the message of personal freedom still lies inextricably embedded in the holiness of Yom Kippur. We are all people who yearn for personal freedom. And yet we are all chained to different forms of coercion, some self-inflicted and others over which we have no apparent control. Yom Kippur therefore allows at least one day of freedom. A day when the cell phone does not exist, when the marketplace is shut down, when nothing physical can be accomplished, when we are left alone with ourselves and inhale the air of spirit and eternity. On Yom Kippur we do not concern ourselves with the immediate tomorrow but rather on the eternal tomorrow. For one day at least the near-sighted become far-sighted, freed from the bonds of everyday life that so constrict our behavior and thoughts. What a gift such a day is!
Repentance is one aspect of personal freedom. Judaism teaches that repentance creates a new person, so to speak. There is nothing more difficult in life than remaking oneself. We are troubled by what our families or our former friends will say about this new self that we project. It is difficult to adjust to a new person, even if the new person is the person itself. Therefore Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant stated that the loudest noise heard in the universe is that of a habit being broken. Physical addictions are terribly dangerous and difficult in the extreme to overcome. Such an addiction is a brutal form of slavery, especially since most such addictions are self-inflicted. But mental and spiritual addictions are just as dangerous and brutal. People are very reluctant to alter preconceived notions and their behavior patterns. The Talmud shrewdly states that after a time slaves become passive and seemingly satisfied with their role in life and comfortable in the lack of accountability and responsibility that this state of being engenders. Personal freedom always comes with a price to be paid for it. The price is the willingness of a person to remake oneself no matter what others in society will think about it. Yom Kippur allows one to begin this process of self-emancipation and to state openly to God and to ourselves that we are determined to become a new, different and better person. Yom Kippur can erase our old addictions and free us for great new accomplishments in life.
The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Halperin) Morgenstern said: “There are really no fast days in the Jewish calendar year. On Tisha Be’av we are so overcome with mourning over the destruction of our Temples that we have no appetite for food – who can eat? On Yom Kippur we are in such an exalted state of spirituality that we have no necessity to eat!” Freed from our physical necessities for the day we are transformed into the new person that looks inside oneself for meaning and fulfillment. Dressed in white and without jeweled adornments, we are freed from fashion and conformity. Moses was told that on holy ground one must shed one’s shoes. It is a sign of humility and connection to the earth at one and the same time. Moses became a new person at that encounter with the burning bush, no longer the simple shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, but rather the great prophet and leader that has no equal in human history and society. We also shed our expensive and comfortable leather shoes on Yom Kippur, for that is part of our declaration that we also wish to become a new person, attached to the holy earth and committed to a new spirit of greatness and responsibility that we pray will permeate us. On Yom Kippur, at least for a day, we become free at last.
Berel Wein is an American-born Orthodox rabbi, scholar, lecturer, and writer. He is regarded as an expert on Jewish history and has popularized the subject through more than 1,000 audio tapes, a four-volume book series, newspaper articles and international lectures. Throughout his career, he has retained personal and ideological ties to both Modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism, and is respected within both movements.
The following article discusses the problem of alcohol and drug abuse among Jews, suggests ways to address the issue, and shows that Alcoholics Anonymous is consistent with Jewish values. At the end, the author answers some common questions about AA. Reprinted with permission from the website of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others.
“For whatever I did or failed to do which contributed to my daughter’s alcoholism problem I will always bear the responsibility and perhaps the guilt. But the fact that my daughter is now a devout Catholic and has left the faith of her family, for that I hold the rabbinate responsible. It is not as though she was primarily attracted to another religion, but rather by default of the Jewish resources.”
At a weekend retreat for Jewish alcoholics, chemically dependent people, and their family members, this mother went on to explain:
“My daughter was an excellent student, and when her grades began to drop we knew something had to be wrong. We eventually discovered she was drinking too much. When she failed her courses she sought help for her problem in an alcoholism clinic. She told her counselor that she felt spiritually empty, and he advised her to see a rabbi. The rabbi she consulted admonished her to control her drinking, and told her that it was a disgrace for a Jew to drink excessively. The rabbi offered no response to her feelings of spiritual bankruptcy.
“Her counselor then told her of a priest who was knowledgeable in alcohol problems. She began to see this priest, and progressed well in her recovery. She is now happily married, eight years sober, and a devout Catholic.”
This is a serious indictment, but one which I believe has great validity. Nowhere in the years of my training to become a rabbi was I taught anything about alcoholism, nor do I recall any attention given to the problem either in rabbinic journals or at conventions.
Alcohol Abuse by Jews
It may be convenient to adhere to the myth that Jews cannot be alcoholics, but this denial constitutes a serious dereliction of duty. To dispel this myth, one need only ask proprietors of country clubs, who just several decades ago shunned Jewish affairs because they could not make their profits on the sale of alcoholic beverages. These same facilities now welcome Jewish business because the drinking is more than adequate to turn a profit.
Whereas the incidence of alcoholism among Jews, while no longer negligible, may indeed be less than in the non-Jewish population (a rather hollow consolation), the same cannot be said of chemical dependency involving other mood altering drugs. Among the older population, addiction to tranquilizers, sedatives, and pain pills is quite common; and among the young adults and adolescents the problem of marijuana dependency as well as abuse of other street drugs is rampant.
Addressing the Problem
What can be done about the problem? The first step is awareness. As long as we believe the problem is not ours we will do nothing. Recognition of the realities of life is of paramount importance, and must be faced squarely by the clerical and lay leadership, as well as the Jewish community at large.
Yeshivas and seminaries must begin to introduce courses dealing with chemical dependency.Jewish communal professionals must become knowledgeable in the field.Community education programs must begin to feature programs of substance abuse.All individuals involved in Jewish communal life must learn to recognize the problem of chemical dependency, and become familiar with the resources so essential to treatment recovery be they detoxification, rehabilitation, counseling or self-help programs.
However great the stigma attached to alcoholism or chemical addiction, it can no longer be allowed to interfere with getting help. Jews have a tendency to be most secretive about emotional disturbances within their families, and often avoid seeking help, for fear of exposure and shame. Furthermore, since family participation is crucial in the recovery process, parents may have concerns that they will meet other members of their community at a treatment facility, and that their private nightmare will be “known to others.”
It must be understood that chemical dependency, whether it involves alcohol, narcotics, cocaine, or other addictive substances, is a malignant condition. Unless arrested, it is like a cancer: progressive, destructive, and lethal. It may claim as its victims not only the user, but the family members as well. Its consequences are far-reaching and devastating. With a problem of this severity, we can no longer afford to deny or hide our need for help.
Whatever the initial approach to treatment, long-term recovery invariably requires participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Pills Anonymous. Psychological therapy can be adjunctive to involvement in these programs, but cannot be relied upon to be the sole treatment modality.
Some people mistakenly believe that programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have a Christian orientation and are “off limits” to Jews. But anyone familiar with AA, NA, or PA knows that this is simply not true. The Twelve Steps of the “anonymous” fellowships are very compatible with Judaism, and those Jews familiar with the concepts of musar (Jewish ethics) will recognize the similarities.
AA Steps & Jewish Sources
Consider the following AA steps in light of the Jewish sources quoted:
AA Step(s) Jewish Teaching Steps 1 & 2: We recognized that we were powerless over alcohol and that only a power greater than ourselves can return our sanity. We choose to call that higher power God as we understand him. The Talmud: Man’s yetzer (impulse, temptation) gains upon him every day, and if it were not that God helps him resist the temptation, man would be powerless. (Sukhah, 52a) Step 3: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. The Talmud: Make His will your will and negate your will before His. (Ethics of the Fathers, II, 4) Steps 4 & 5: We made a fearless and thorough personal inventory, and shared this inventory with our higher
power and at least one other person.
All the musar authorities stress the need for regular heshbon hanefesh (personal inventory) as well as having a confidant with whom one shares it. Step 9: We made those amends to anyone we had harmed whenever this was possible. Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Hayim 606:1): Yom Kippur forgives only for sins between man and God. Offenses committed against another person are not forgiven until the offender seeks direct forgiveness from the one he has harmed. Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening we carried that message to other alcoholics. The Torah holds Jews responsible for one another, to the extent that one has the capability of correcting another’s misdeeds. “Teach and correct your friend, then you will not bear responsibility for his sins.” (Leviticus XIX, 17)
Some Questions & Answers
What about the fact that most AA and NA meetings are held in churches?
This is only because until recently no one had made any effort to hold them in synagogues, or because synagogues did not welcome them. More and more synagogues have now become the site of AA and NA meetings.
What about the prayers at AA meetings?
No one is obligated to say any particular prayer. When others recite prayers of their liturgy, a Jew may recite any prayer from the siddur (Jewish prayer book).
Jews who observe the laws of kashrut [dietary laws] can generally arrange for kosher provisions in a rehabilitation center. Some rehabilitation centers have already accommodated various observances without any difficulty. Nor need there be any problem in Sabbath observance or in setting time for daily services.
In 1980 a group known as JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) came into being under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the New York Board of Rabbis. In addition to being the resource center, JACS provides two annual weekend retreats for recovering persons and their family members to focus on Jewish spiritual issues. In many communities, local JACS affiliates have developed to stimulate community awareness, provide information and resources, and create a supportive and understanding network for Jewish recoverers and their families.
It is clear that chemical dependency has become a Jewish problem, but it is also clear that there are support systems and solutions which can and must be utilized to help the Jewish recoverer. There is no longer any excuse for not recognizing the problem or not knowing where to turn for information or help.
The problem is ours! We cannot walk away from it!
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D. is a nationally acknowledged expert in the field of alcoholism and chemical dependency, and is currently the Medical Director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, as well as an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
I have once again put off my 9th step amends. One would think I would have made quick work of what would surely have given me relief, but I have done what I do each and every time I work the steps; I procrastinate. I am as yet unclear as to why I do this every time. It’s not that I have trouble admitting my wrongs to those I have harmed. Is it laziness? Certainly. Admitting vulnerability? Perhaps.
Friday evening marks Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of Yamin Noraim or “the days of awe”, days specifically set aside to focus on repentance which conclude with the holiday of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I have explored and been deeply moved by Judaism since the early days of my sobriety. It is the one faith that I feel an affinity toward, if any.
I left the Lutheran church without looking back at the age of 13, unable to reconcile our differences. I turned to Buddhism when my spirit felt bereft and it was in this Atheist state that I came to AA. When I came to a kernel of realization about God, the search began. Judaism was the closest thing to matching what I realized. I simply felt empty when I heard that Jesus was the only way to God.
It was an Atheist who told me, after much anxiety and searching, that AA was my church. I relaxed, took it easy. Recently I have been drawn again to Judaism. The High Holidays are upon us and my amends are undone. I see here an opportunity, one rich in spiritual depth, to begin again. The last year has been one of pain, growth and presents an opportunity for renewal. I will dip the challah in honey for the good, sweet year to come. I will finish my amends and then, on Yom Kippur, I will fast to make myself like the angels, to soar as high as I can. Then I will ask God for forgiveness. “G’mar Chatima Tova”
On Yom Kippur I disassociate myself, for one day, from my body so that my body does not separate me from immersing into the mikvah of G-d’s oneness. In this way I acknowledge the truth of how I exist within G-d. I am one with Him and I am loved by Him with the very love that He loves Himself because I am an aspect of His very Self. Yom Kippur offers the perfect ambiance to return to G-d in love, redeem your dark past and turn it into light. On Yom Kippur we realize that only love is real; everything else is illusion. ~Rabbi David Aaron