I hardly ever cross a bridge in this city of 950 million bridges, but I went to the suburbs to hear a rabbi talk about addiction. Danny Schiff, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, is the scholar in charge of adult education for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
As a middle-aged woman who was raised strict Catholic (but let that go more than 30 years ago), I found his remarks refreshing in their recasting of some of the Bible figures I’d grown up with. For example, Schiff said Noah was the world’s first addict.
Whoa. I either never learned or had forgotten this, but Schiff said that when Noah gets God’s directive to build a sealed boat fit for one pair of every animal on earth so He can go ahead with his plan to demolish the planet (only a male god would think this is an awesome solution to anything, imo), apparently Noah has the same instincts many of us would have had: he runs to the cellar to pick out a few bottles of vino.
And then, Schiff said, “he has shame about what he does when he drinks.”
“Noah had a problem with life,” Schiff said. “He underwent an enormous life-transition.” Well, hell yeah: imagine living conditions inside a sealed boat with the planet’s largest animals doing what they do best.
But then he said: “Something about Noah’s life made the wine seem like the only solution.” Bingo. And addiction does not automatically make people morally bad, he said: Noah is described as “the most righteous man of his generation.”
Schiff has never counseled anyone with addiction, and he doesn’t have addiction in his family. He said Jews have no standard set of texts about addiction the way they do with other problems of life. The problem of addiction, he said, is “at once as old as time, and also has been outside Jewish conversation.”
We have denied that Jews could be involved in addiction. We say, “Jews know how to moderate drinking—just take a little Kiddush wine.” We have Purim—the one time in the year that we’re allowed to overindulge. But we have as many alcoholics as any other group in society.
Addiction, Schiff said, can be seen as a kind of “physical reductionism,” or materialism: we rely on a physical substance to solve problems whose structures are essentially spiritual. He said although most people identify 12-step organizations as Christian, when read through the Jewish lens of “teshuvah” or “return,” “the twelve steps read like a process of how to return my life to God.”
Another stunning statement:
Jews introduced the world to the idea of a personal god who cares about humans.
Wow. I don’t even know how to fact-check that idea, but it’s pretty powerful, simply considering how old the spiritual practice of Judaism is. (That would be more than five millennia.)
To illustrate the idea of “teshuvah,” which he said most Jews misunderstand as “repentance” but which really means a spiritual “return,” he quoted a verse from Genesis:
Behold, I am with you, and I will not leave you until you have returned from whence you came.
The Bible’s various phrasings have God promising to bring the Jewish people back to their land. But the way Schiff interpreted this verse is different: it can be read as God promising to accompany humans on their life’s paths, and not leaving us until we’ve returned to our mysterious origins.
These words draped a little veil of comfort around me. As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I have a little tiny problem with the God-thing. That problem has grown in the last three years or so. When my marriage broke down, I fired God’s ass, and I had security escort Him the hell out of the building. I’ve fired God before, and then rehired God (with more or less lengthy probationary periods). But firing God is pretty unhealthy for me. The first time I fired God was in 1999, the year my mother died at age 58, and that was the beginning of my descent into uncontrollable pill-popping.
The fact that Schiff was so naïve about addiction actually helped him see the problem in the terms he’d see any problem. In that way, he normalized it: it’s a problem, like any of life’s other problems, and we can use the same principles with it that we’d use to think about any problem.
For example, he said:
Ultimately, if you think you’re in control of your life, you are delusional.
He stole this line from “Kung-Fu Panda.” 🙂 One of my best friends quite often quotes Master Oogway’s lecture to Shifu: “You have to let go of the illusion of control.”
Nota bene: you don’t have to let go of control. You have to let go of your illusion (or, as Schiff would say, your delusion).
So Noah went home and got fucked up, but he followed orders and built the ark.
“We are required to get on with life,” Schiff said.
Life is to be lived, not saved.