Many people in long-term recovery from substance abuse and addiction have attributed their success to an active spiritual and/or religious life. For example, they might be heavily involved in a local church, mosque, or synagogue, where they’ve found spiritual support, an outlet for service, and/or a sense of belonging. In addition to participating in a spiritual program for recovery such as the 12 Steps, they may be part of a more expressly religious recovery group that addresses addiction struggles through the lens of a particular faith.
One such faith tradition is Judaism. What insights might it have for those in treatment for an addiction or in early recovery? The next sections will help to answer this question.
How Religion Can Offer Insight and Strength
To be human is to experience disease, weakness, and imperfection. To be human is to suffer at times. In our times of greatest need and suffering, religion has been a source of hope, comfort, and meaning for many of us. The knowledge that there is a God in the midst of the chaos—a benevolent God who wants the best for us—has been an anchor for countless people. It’s no wonder then that religion might also have something of value to say to people in recovery and provide insight, strength, and encouragement.
Examples of and Verses for Addiction in the Hebrew Bible
Scripture is one common way in which religion provides support. For example, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, various Bible verses address issues like temptation and offer insight into character traits like self-control. Consider, for example, the following verse from the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible or “Torah” (which Christians also read but call the “Old Testament”): “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.” While it’s important to avoid any notion that the disease of addiction is purely a lack of self-control, verses like these may help some people build important character traits like self-control in the process of treatment and recovery.
The term “addiction” and examples of what that looks like (at least according to current-day norms) do not show up in scriptures that date all the way back to ancient times. However, references to drinking and intoxication do appear. For example, in Genesis, which is also the first book of the Torah for Jews, Noah plants a vineyard, produces wine, and gets so drunk that he ends up exposing himself to his sons while intoxicated. The scene is not just humiliating for Noah but has generational consequences. (This encounter happens after Noah and his family survive the flood in their ark.)
Jews in Recovery from Addiction
Drug and alcohol abuse is a reality for Jews as it is for other human beings. Jews are susceptible to stress and other challenges that can trigger substance use. Individuals struggling with mental illness and chronic pain may use drugs or alcohol to feel better emotionally and physically. However, in the Jewish community as in other religious communities, there can be some reluctance to seek help for addiction, sometimes because typical treatment modalities seem to conflict with members’ religious beliefs.
12-Step Spirituality for Recovery
The popular 12-step treatment modality, the foundation of many recovery programs, is often thought to be based on Christianity. However, the model 12-step program has evolved into many forms that work for people with various beliefs and addictive behaviors. The 12 Steps do not espouse a specific religion or belief. People of many faiths have embraced the program and found it has put them on the path to recovery. Likewise, many in the Jewish community have incorporated the 12 Steps with meditation, prayer, and other faith practices.
Jewish Views About Alcohol
What are Jewish views about alcohol? Unlike Islam, which prohibits drinking, Judaism generally permits alcohol in moderation. To what degree do these views help to reduce the stigma of addiction and also support recovery? The answer to that question may depend heavily on the particular community, its cultural context and the strain of Judaism. One study in 2001 that looked at drinking patterns among Jewish and Arab men and women in Israel found that adherence to religious traditions “served as a barrier against drinking among both Arabs and Jews.”
The Torah and the 12 Steps
People in recovery represent many faith traditions and worldviews, including the Judaic religion and its scriptures, such as the Torah. In fact, Judaism offers a unique approach to recovery and mental health that’s also 12-step compatible.
Jewish traditions regarding overcoming struggles blend naturally with the 12-step program. The Code of Jewish Law, The Talmud, the Torah, and the 12 Steps have several tenets in common, which help Jewish people find the resolve and strength to deal with life’s challenges, including addiction. Consider the following examples of how the original 12 Steps align with selected Jewish teachings:
Steps 1 and 2 say, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable,” and “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” These statements relate to the Talmud teaching that suggests that individuals need God’s help to deal with temptations and destructive impulses.
Step 3 says “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” The Talmud parallel of this step indicates that an individual must make His (God’s) will their will.
Step 4 suggests “making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and step 5 encourages “admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs;” Judaism teaches the need for regular personal inventory and sharing wrongs with another individual.
Steps 8 and 9: “Made a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.” “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” According to Jewish teachings in Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), when an individual commits an offense against another, forgiveness is not an option until they ask the person they have offended for forgiveness.
Step 12: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs. According to the Torah, Jews are responsible for one another, so one person can correct another’s errors.” In other words, “Teach and correct your friend, then you will not bear responsibility for his sins.” (Leviticus XIX, 17)
Words of Encouragement from the Jewish Religion
When it comes to words of encouragement, the Jewish religion has an extensive vocabulary around healing and hope for healing for those who are sick. People in recovery can find encouragement from various prayers and psalms for healing, as well as readings.
As just one illustration among many, the Hebrew prayer “Mi Shebeirach,“ translated as “the One who blessed,” is an address to “the One who blessed our ancestors,” asking for complete physical and spiritual healing. The prayer asks for “blessing, mercy, and strength” on behalf of those with health challenges that might include substance use disorders and addictions.
Often recited in public worship, “Mi Shebeirach” is translated as follows:
“May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal those who are ill [names]. May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.”
Other Recovery Supports for People of Jewish Faith
In addition to rehab centers, individuals in the Jewish community dealing with substance abuse can turn to community organizations, including a network of Jewish nonprofit agencies for support services. The Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies has affiliates in many larger cities in the U.S.
Rehab Programs That Address the Needs of the Individual
Drugs and alcohol do not discriminate. Anyone can become addicted, but not many people can fight addiction without help. A good rehab program will address the individualized roots of an addiction and will do so from a place of respect for you as a whole person, including your spiritual and religious views. At FHE Health, our compassionate medical providers and therapists will work diligently with you or a loved one to devise a personalized treatment plan that will work best for you.