Yesterday I attended a meeting of the Washington Board of Rabbis. This particular meeting addressed the growing health crisis of addiction in our country and in the Jewish community. Our program included a presentation by Rabbi Fabian Werbin, who announced the creation of a new AA group at Beth El. He was followed by Rabbi Ilan Glazer who shared his own story of his recovery path and the need for a sensitive and proactive response from the Jewish community and its leadership. His new book, And God Created Recovery, is soon to be published.
We learned that the classic understanding of addiction -relating to drug and alcohol- has broadened. ASAM, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, offers this "short" definition:
"Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one's behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response..."
Rabbi Glazer pointed to the failings of Jewish leaders and our institutions and congregations to speak to this crisis. I was surprised to hear that the Jewish Social Service Agency does not have a program that addresses addiction nor programs for Recovery. Not one rabbi at the meeting ever spoke about the crisis of addiction from the pulpit. Politically, the Jewish community has also not been engaged to address these needs.
The Parsha this week, Mishpatim, reveals in great detail ordinances for the well-being of the Israelite community. These laws address slavery, property rights, animal rights, immigrant rights, agriculture, assault and idolatry. Nowhere does the text mention addictive behaviors specifically. This is the function of the Oral Torah that the rabbis engaged in yesterday. Of course, the principles that address addiction are abundant in the Torah: "Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life; not standing idly by the blood of your neighbor; love your neighbor as yourself; and, raising up those who are bowed down."
The Talmud is filled with teachings related to addictive behaviors. This week's Parsha opens with injunctions regarding slavery. Is not addiction a form of self-enslavement? The early Israelite community was addicted to its need for slaves or servants even though they were slaves in Egypt. But they worked out a way to address and, in effect, recover from this addiction and, ultimately, free their own society from a slave economy. Let's continue this conversation. Some of us have addictions. Most of us know someone who has an addiction. Your thoughts about this are most welcome. B'Shalom Reb David