Coming Clean as a Rabbi: Understanding Addiction and Embracing Jewish Spirituality

By Paul Steinberg

For the rabbi, August is the calm before the storm. Jews have recently mourned the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av and, although the rabbi shares in the historical sadness of this tragedy, he or she must now awaken from the ruin and find inspiration in order to spread hope and purpose at the High Holidays.

This year, I do not have a pulpit from which to speak. I lost my opportunity, along with my prestige, my pride, and my entire station due to the wreckage of my disease – alcoholism and addiction. Last year, during this same cycle in the calendar, I was in the throes of mental obsession, “on a run” as reckoned in the halls of A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous). Like most alcoholics and addicts, however, I developed an expertise in hiding, lying, and manipulating in order to protect my obsession with getting loaded. In A.A. lore, an alcoholic or addict is known as the type that will steal your wallet and then later help you look for it. In my illness, I had stolen the trust of those who loved and knew me, and eventually they caught on to my deceptions.

Looking back, I now realize that my disease (and addiction is a disease; 60% genetic, 40% environmental) was long in the making. As a newly ordained rabbi-educator in Dallas, Texas my career started showing signs of early success. Soon I was called to a bigger job in Los Angeles, and I started working tirelessly on the side – finishing a doctorate, teaching in a graduate school, serving on national boards, writing articles, and speaking at conferences. While my mind was completely directed toward building my career identity, my soul was crying out. Hasidic wisdom teaches that we should be sure to bridge mind and heart in all we do. Somehow along the way, I had unintentionally burned that bridge and mind alone was at the reins.

Ben Stiller’s character in Keeping the Faith candidly observed, “Jews want their rabbis to be everything they’re not,” and, as a rabbi, I felt as though I had to be everything I was not. I wanted to be what I thought was a pious and perfect symbolic exemplar, yet I knew I was flawed. I wanted to be respected and appreciated, yet I resisted acknowledgement for accomplishments for fear of becoming egotistical and sanctimonious. I was a divided self, broken by a persistent feeling of unworthiness and fraud. Shame is a slippery demon, and as with Cain, it was crouching at my door.

I have learned that the fear of not being good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough comes to us in flashes. The chest tightens, the mind narrows, and the heart hardens. Often enough, we don’t recognize it as it touches us and so we discover ourselves only after the fact, rehearsing the trigger point over and over. We get caught in the depressive cycle of scrutinizing the past and fantasizing about how we might impress in the future. In my case, I had lost the spiritual aptitude of release. Instead of letting it go, stepping out of the narrow optics of the moment to freely see the whole of my self, I trapped myself in the prison of my own impossible expectations. To exhaustingly maintain the mental image of rabbi-educator that I projected, I had become a workaholic by day and an alcoholic by night, until I became a workaholic and an alcoholic by day and by night. Toward the end, I believed that it might be best to simply relieve the planet of my sickening existence.

My Jewish identity actually added additional challenges. Whether it was good old-fashioned Jewish guilt, or the unspoken rule that Jews shouldn’t hang our dirty laundry out to dry lest we give anyone an excuse to dislike us, or that being an alcoholic just isn’t something that happens to a “nice Jewish boy” (especially a rabbi!), I was afraid to ask for help. I believed that my community would reject me. After all, Jews don’t usually talk about addiction as a problem; churches, not synagogues host A.A. meetings. The fact is, however, that Jews are alcoholics and addicts, too, which doesn’t include the vast numbers of us who are affected through friends and relatives.

Moreover, addiction is not only about substances. It is a mental disease that expresses itself in the obsessive desire to control our lives. Indeed, the neuroscience corroborates shared psychological processes between substance addicts and non-substance addicts. Accordingly, we are addicted to events (social drama, crisis, trouble), processes (work, gambling, eating, sex, shopping), and even people (codependency). The truth is that addiction, in one form or another, can indiscriminately be found in every corner of our society and my hope is that we can come out and come clean so that we can honestly begin the healing together.

In my case, like the Temple in Jerusalem on the 9th of Av, an outside force tore down my walls. The collapse of my obsession had to be taken from me in order for me to let it go. My redemption began when my external, career identity was demolished. Although the suffering I experienced was inexplicable, as the weeks passed, clean of my poisons and with life ahead of me as a blank slate, I could return to the rhythm of God, to syncopate my re-formed will to the slow heartbeat of the universe. What is clearly worth living for – my family, my relationships, my passion to teach, to serve, my connections in love – gradually emerged, cauterized in the embers of my ruined, false mental image. Through my teshuvah, what had been the worst and most painful thing that ever happened to me, transformed into the best thing that ever happened to me. My “temple” had to be destroyed in order for me to become spiritually free.

During these High Holidays, as I continue my life of teshuvah, my accompanying prayer is that other Jews who suffer from addiction will also open up to the miracle of genuine teshuvah. I pray that my professional colleagues will awaken to this subtle and veiled pain that exists within our communities and rise to its challenge. And for our communities, I pray that we can tear down our walls of fear and provide a safe place to express our vulnerabilities, truly embracing teshuvah as real agent of transformation. If our congregations cannot be a place for the depressed, the addicted, the junkie, or the ex-con, then what claim are we making on our Judaism? What kind of temple have we really built? I, for one, am willing to teach, counsel, and help – that is my new passion – because if not for the hope, faith, and courage that others entrusted to me, I would not have survived.

Today I know that I can only arrive at these High Holidays not only as the part of me I want everyone to see, but as all of me: thoughtful rabbi, eager learner, grateful alcoholic, proud father, devoted husband, anxious child, angry delinquent, God-loving tzaddik, and fearful sinner. I invite us all to do the same.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is a spiritual counselor and educator at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, CA. His book Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality (Jewish Lights) is available this fall. Previously, a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, his other books include three-volume series Celebrating the Jewish Year, which won the National Jewish Book Award.