Addiction is a disease that can affect any demographic. It doesn’t conform to geographic, racial, religious, or socioeconomic boundaries. Members of the Jewish community may struggle with substance use disorders that need to be addressed in addiction treatment. Addiction carries a stigma that creates barriers to addiction treatment and people may feel shame when it comes to admitting to or addressing a substance use problem. However, many Jewish organizations are seeking to connect people with effective addiction treatment and to overcome stigma to get people the help they need.
But what do the Torah and other Hebrew scriptures say about addiction and how does Judaism address it? Learn more about addiction in the Bible and how it can be treated.
Psychoactive Substances in the Bible
The writers of the Hebrew Bible all lived during times when psychoactive substances were used by humans. In Hebrew culture, alcohol was the most common recreational substance, particularly in the form of wine. The Bible directly addresses the use of alcohol and addiction-related to alcohol and these principles can be applied to other substances.
The Bible doesn’t condemn the use of alcohol and, in fact, wine was often seen as a blessing along with food and wealth. However, like those other blessings and excess of wine is seen as dangerous and corrupting.
While excessive drinking and drunkenness are discouraged in the scriptures, alcohol itself is not seen as sinful contraband. In fact, it was used in drinking offerings along with other sacrifices. It was also involved in feasts and festivals. The prophet Isaiah also talks about a time of blessings from God saying, “And the Lord of Hosts shall make for all the peoples on this mount, a feast of fat things, a feast of dregs; fat things full of marrow, dregs well refined.” Dregs refer to dregs of wine and the drink is treated as a good thing from God.
Still, excessive drinking is warned against. The book of Proverbs includes messages about general practical life wisdom and it’s full of advice about excessive drinking. Proverbs 20:1 says, “The [imbiber of] wine is a scorner; he roars, “Strong drink!” And whoever strays with it will not become wise.” The stories of Noah and Lot in Genesis involve shameful mistakes that involved excessive drinking.
How Does the Bible Address Addiction?
We know that addiction is a complex disease that affects the reward center of the brain and creates powerful compulsions to use that are difficult to control. But what does the scripture say about this dangerous problem? The first thing prescribed is prevention. Again the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning; they pursue strong wine. They sit until late in the evening; wine inflames them.”
This warning provides a picture of some of the symptoms of addiction. Drinking first thing in the morning is a sign of chemical dependence. If you are chemically dependent on alcohol and drink at night, after several hours of sleep, the effects will wear off and you’ll experience withdrawal. Drinking or using drugs at odd times is a sign that recreational drug use has become dependence or addiction. The word “woe” is an expression of great sorry in the Bible and the verse points to the threat of alcohol misuse. In context, this section of Isaiah 5 talks about God’s displeasure with sins of excess like greed and drunkenness.
Addiction may also be addressed through the problem of sin in the Bible in general. Addiction has been treated as a moral failing in the past. Even though it’s often a consequence of bad choices and it can lead to regrettable behavior, addiction itself is a disease. Still, the parallels between giving in to sin and being caught in active addiction may be relatable to someone that’s been struggling with a substance use disorder.
In Genesis chapter 4, the first murder takes place between Cain and his brother Abel. But before that, Cain and Abel brought tributes to God and he was pleased with Abel’s and not with Cain’s. In response to Cain’s anger, God says, “And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.”
In other words, sin is ready to pounce when you fail to rule over it. Addiction is similar. As a chronic disease, it can last a very long time. While there’s treatment for it, there is no cure. Even people that complete an addiction treatment program should continue to pursue recovery. Growing complacent in your recovery may increase your risk of relapse.
Hope in Trials and Struggles
There is no doubt that addiction is a significant trial in the lives of people with substance use disorders. Alcoholism and drug addiction are notoriously difficult to overcome, The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of God’s people going through trials, persecution, and also personal failings in the form of corruption and sin. However, even when prophets bring messages of God’s displeasure with his people, it often comes with a message of hope. For instance, in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, Moses is looking forward to a time when Israel’s estrangement from God will be over and they will return to him. He says, “the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you.”
Likewise, there is hope in the midst of addiction and difficulties of every kind. This message of hope for God’s is true for someone struggling with medical, psychological, social, and spiritual issues today.
Jewish Addiction Resources
Today, people that struggle with addiction in the Jewish community may find it difficult to admit their problem and seek help. One of the positives of living within a religious community is accountability that can help keep you out of harm’s way. But that can also be a challenge when it creates feelings of shame and embarrassment in people with a problem that needs to be addressed. However, the Jewish community has recognized the need to reach out to people with substance use disorders and there are many resources that are provided or promoted among Jewish people.
One example is the Jewish Addiction Awareness Network, which seeks to connect people to addiction recovery resources. They provide resources by demographic areas and Jewish-specific resources within the community.
Another Jewish-specific resource in recovery is Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS). This is another organization that’s dedicated to helping people pursue recovery in a Jewish environment.
Addiction is a disease that should be treated with evidence-based approaches that address medical, psychological, and social needs. Still, many people find spiritual healing to be a vital part of the recovery process. If you’re going through an addiction treatment program, you may be able to explore local options to address your spiritual health. Even if your addiction treatment program doesn’t have Jewish faith-based resources, you may be able to talk to a local rabbi about resources to address your spiritual healing in recovery.