Rabbi Allan Finkel of Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom spoke about addiction in the Jewish community and Jewish-based recovery during a Nov. 6 Zoom presentation organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria.
The talk was the first of Kolot Mayim’s 2022/23 lecture series entitled Hineini: Answering the Call to Heal the World. It widened the definition of addictions to go beyond those that are substance-based to include dozens that are behavioural. Finkel also explored new research on the causes of addiction, particularly childhood trauma.
“My name is Allan and I am an addict,” he began. “This was a huge hineini, when I first said ‘here I am.’ This was my declaration 13 years ago. At that time, hineini meant here I am at the bottom of a drug addiction, I am broken and I am open to an unknown path that might lead to recovery.”
That path, starting at Narcotics Anonymous, would take him on a spiritual journey, reconnecting him with his Judaism and leading him to become a rabbi.
For his rabbinical program, Finkel wrote his thesis on addictions in the Jewish community. “I was curious to know what we might learn as rabbis, and how we can carry our journey forward in terms of serving our congregations,” he said. “It is a mental health issue, and there wasn’t very much known about it…. And there are certain issues, particularly within the Jewish community, that made it a topic that I wanted to explore.”
Finkel discussed a 1962 study of the Jewish community in the United States that tried to find out what percentage of the Jewish community was addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. The answer was zero, compared to a 10% addiction rate in the overall population. Clearly, the study indicated a denial within the Jewish community that Jews can also be addicts. A 1995 study in the United Kingdom produced similar results.
Beginning in the early 2000s, research began to demonstrate that, to understand addictions, one needed to look beyond substances and towards behavioural addictions, which can encompass many areas: shopping, food, internet and gambling, among them. More recently: cellphone use, online gaming and video gaming.
From this standpoint, the number of people demonstrating addictive behaviour reaches 47%, according to studies Finkel cited, though he suggested the number is likely far higher. A commonality among people with addictive behaviours is the inability to stop, no matter what harm it does to those around them and to themselves.
Returning to the denial of addiction in the Jewish community, Finkel proposed that one cause is the long-standing fear of shame, which could be triggered by an admission of a problem at a synagogue, Jewish school or other institution. Looking at areas of the Torah, such as the story of Noah, he explained, one sees that “the Jewish denial of addiction is social and cultural, it is not religious in orientation.”
Within the past decade, there has been a broader consensus within Jewish institutions that addiction is not a moral failing, but instead can be caused by the same factors that result in other mood and psychological disorders.
Using the work of Vancouver physician Dr. Gabor Maté, Finkel noted that all addictive behaviour can be traced to something that happened when a person was very young. “Not everyone who was traumatized becomes an addict, but every addict was traumatized.”
One conclusion Finkel draws is the need to destigmatize the word “addiction.” He stressed that an addiction, as stated in the American Psychiatric Association’s 2013 manual on mental disorders, is a means of coping no different from any other mental health disease.
A second takeaway is that adults and not children bear much of the responsibility for addictions; in other words, no child ever dreams of becoming an addict. Children do not have the rational skills to take on and cope in a non-destructive way with trauma that happens to them.
Further, Finkel argued that real recovery is not simply about stopping addictive behaviour, but about going back to one’s past and taking care of the fears and resentments of childhood, as well as the habits that build up over a lifetime.
Finkel told the audience that it has been more than 10 years after his last relapse. He said the rewards of recovery have been immense and have brought incredible relationships with his children, himself and life.
Finkel is an outspoken advocate for interfaith engagement and for the building of strong bridges and partnerships across all denominations within the Jewish community. He currently chairs the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis.
A video of Finkel’s lecture is posted at kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Rabbi Allan Finkel provided this list of resources for those experiencing addiction and those close to them:
- Crisis and suicide line: 1-800-784-2433
- Jewish Addiction Community Service (JACS) Vancouver 778-882-2994
- Mental health support: 310-6789 (no area code required)
- Umbrella Society: support, outreach, recovery, counseling, groups, harm reduction and education, umbrellasociety.ca
- Our Jewish Recovery: Facebook group, with 16 active Jewish recovery meetings and classes, virtual retreats, individual and group coaching, led by Rabbi Ilan Glazer
- Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah: A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness
- Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Dr. Stuart Copans, Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery, and other of Olitzky’s books, including with co-authors
- Rabbi Paul Steinberg, Recovery and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage and Wholeness
- Rabbi Shais Taub, God of our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery