Q&A : Substance Addictions – February 2009 – “Jewish Life” magazine
As part of the theme in this edition of parenting and childhood, we tackle the problem of substance addiction, a worldwide problem from which the Jewish community is not exempt – how can we deal with this problem?
Addiction is a serious and complex problem which requires multiple approaches in order to deal with it. The first step is obviously to seek professional help. As with any problem, we can’t sweep it under the carpet. We have to get away from denial, because that is the real poison here. If a problem is denied, we can’t even begin to solve it. To fail is not what condemns us in the end, but it is our response to that failure. We have to respond in a positive way.
What is this destructive drive from a spiritual perspective?
The human quest for meaning is a major factor behind substance abuse. People have a feeling of emptiness in the purpose of life itself. People are lacking in spiritual content, in deep and meaningful relationships. A feeling of emptiness pervades their life – which they seek to fill.
How can we fill this void in a healthy way?
Although not the entire answer, a vibrant, dynamic experience of Judaism is an important part of it. People suffer from all different addictions for many reasons, but if we look at addictions from a communal, macro point of view, Judaism brings energy, purpose, and inspiration to life – and those are very important things that can counteract the need for addictive substances.
How does Judaism address this emptiness?
Judaism teaches that we all have a soul from G-d, which has a yearning to be close to Him. And the Torah is the mechanism designed by G-d as a way for our souls to interact with Him. But Judaism is not just about being spiritual; it’s about having healthy relationships and character traits, and a healthy balance between the spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual facets of our lives. In considering all these dimensions, the Torah addresses the totality of a person – it is the blueprint for how to live healthy, wholesome lives in every respect.
How can we encourage people grappling with these issues to use Judaism as the first place that they look for their meaning?
Judaism is our heritage; it’s what G-d gave us, it’s part of who we are. And Jews respond to that. The match is easy, it just has to be presented to us – and the ancient, divine wisdom of Judaism is now being presented in innovative, dynamic ways.
Yet people are experiencing this void from an increasingly young age – what does it say about us?
That social morals have degenerated over time. And, the degree of exposure afforded by the entertainment industry means that young people are being opened up to adult experiences long before they are ready, at an age that they don’t have the emotional and intellectual tools to integrate or comprehend it. That damages their psyche, and makes them vulnerable to turning to substances to repair the damage that has been caused. But of course, it doesn’t repair anything, it just adds to the damage.
How can we begin to correct that?
Judaism has always taught that children should be allowed to be children – to entertain themselves, to play and learn.
What is the role of parents in ensuring this?
As a medium, TV undermines the emotional and intellectual growth and development of a child – so just the sheer amount of time both parents and children spend in front of the TV is damaging. Then there is the content. Parents have to be so careful about what they let their children watch. TV has the power to convey the framework of a value system, and it creates powerful images in children’s minds, which makes them think about the world in a way that can be destructive to a young mind. Parents have to take a firm hand and curtail this as much as possible, and this means active parenting.
What is active parenting?
This is about building relationships between parents and children, because this relationship forms the foundation of everything. Without this healthy relationship, there is no context in which the value system that is passed onto the child can operate.
Would it be fair to say that sometimes active parenting is taken too far? Where parents are unable to say no? And is this inability then internalised by the children when faced with drugs or alcohol?
A good parent-child relationship doesn’t mean that parents and children are friends, or equals. In the modern world, there is the ethos of equality, which is of course a very important Torah value, but it doesn’t apply to parents and children. Judaism trains us in self discipline and gives us the tools to have the strength and confidence to say no when appropriate. Children need boundaries. The importance of showing a child that you can say no is enhanced when children are dealing with substance abuse, which is essentially the incapacity to say no.
And the responsibility of the youth?
In the secular way of thinking, adulthood is freedom. In the Jewish way of thinking, children become adults from bar or bat mitzvah, literally ‘son or daughter of the mitzvah’. If we deconstruct that, we see that with adulthood comes responsibility. And part of that responsibility is looking after and respecting the miracle of the body and the mind that Hashem has given us. Because all addictions are harmful to the body and damage the mind – smoking, alcohol, drugs.
How do we develop our self-discipline?
Habit and training. The word in Hebrew for education is chinuch, which literally means training. One can be trained in the right habits. This is why the mitzvot are so practical. And they are cyclical so that we can constantly review them, because we continuously need to be trained in a way of thinking and acting that brings out all of our positive dimensions in accordance with G-d’s will.