Teaching Torah through Brokenness: An Institute of Learning

By Paul Steinberg

In 1972, during the television program Eternal Light, Abraham Joshua Heschel vigorously exhorted: “Here stands a man and I’ll tell you, this is a man who has no problems. Do you know why? He’s an idiot!” So it is: to be a mindful human is to have problems. Certainly, these problems include those of the world: injustice, corruption, poverty, warfare, hunger, and on and on. As Jewish mystics identified long ago, the world is broken and is in need of healing, and we should be doing what can to mend such brokenness.

Yet, not only the world has problems or is broken. The Talmud declares that each human being is a world unto him or herself and, therefore each one of us experiences brokenness. I refer here not merely to potential temporary crises and losses that inevitably occur in our lives, such as failure, job loss, losing a loved one, heartbreak, or hitting bottom, but to the innate brokenness of the human condition; to the fact that each of us has some kind of crack or split, resulting from the inherent human dilemma wherein we exist in an uncertain world with an unknown future. The brokenness that I refer to is the anxious acknowledgement that all we may really know in this world is that we live, often in conditions that are unfavorable, and that we die. Yet our birth into the world – a world that we did not create or even necessarily condone – and the fact that we are destined to suffer and die are not of our own will. As the Sages taught: “It was not your will that formed you, nor was it your will that gave you birth; it is not your will that makes you live, and it is not your will that brings you death” (Avot 4:29).

This existential, indeed, spiritual dilemma of our mortal circumstance leads to the greatest of all human temptations, namely, to do whatever we can to control our uncertain, imperfect existence and to make it as we would like. And there are all sorts of ways we attempt to control our human experience in order to deny our fallibility, powerlessness, and mortality. We try to control it externally by creating environments of material goods and technology that satisfy us. But we also try to control it internally by finding comfort in intellectual or emotional points of security, such as by acquiring knowledge, titles, prestige, and socioeconomic status. Of course, such intellectual and emotional acquisitions may provide a provisional sense of accomplishment and security, yet we must ultimately admit that they neither change the fact of our mortal vulnerability nor protect us from the vicissitudes and pains of life. In sum, we create false idols that occupy our time, distract our minds, and numb our feelings.

Tragically, these false idols, which help us to momentarily avoid our existential angst often lead us to all sorts of destructive choices and attachments, which we see in every corner of our society, including Jewish ones. These include: alcohol and drug addiction, work-aholism, rampant caffeine consumption, overeating, prescription drug abuse, dieting pill abuse, gambling, Internet pornography obsession, shop-aholism, hoarding, video game addiction, social media compulsion, sex addiction, co-dependency, bullying, anorexia, bulimia, and self-mutilation. The list goes on.

At Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, we see all forms of such obsessive behaviors. And after nearly 30 years of hard-won wisdom, we have come to learn that they all root from the same one source: the innate brokenness of the human condition, which expresses itself in living a duality of self – a split. We are beings that are neither angels nor beasts; neither good nor evil. We are both and yet neither. We are not one thing in this experience of ourselves in this world. And that is not easy.

However, it is precisely for this reason that Judaism exists. Judaism acknowledges that the fundamental experience of the human being, the innate human condition is one of division and brokenness. It is an imperfect world and we are imperfect creatures. So, what does Judaism do? What is Judaism’s response? It gives us a Torah. And what is the Torah? It is a book filled with stories of broken and imperfect people. For example, the first human beings, Adam and Eve, had only one rule to follow and they broke it, so they were kicked out of the garden. The first child, Cain, kills his only brother. Abraham, the first Jew, sells his wife out twice to local kings, almost kills one son and expels the other. Jacob, the one from whom Jews are named Israel – which means “one who struggles” and or “one who wrestles” – is a thief and liar. Moses, the leader of the Israelites, is a murderer and criminal who had to run to the desert as a fugitive. And the Jewish people as a whole, our collective nation was born of brokenness, poverty and slavery.

That all being said, the Torah patently teaches one fundamental lesson in life, which follows from the assumption that we will all go through heartbreak and pain, and we may even find ourselves in the mud pits of depravity. But that does not need to be the end of the story! We can be redeemed. We can come back. We can make teshuvah.

Helping individuals and families to discover their meaning and their redemption – their teshuvah – is what Beit T’Shuvah does on a daily basis. However, not all Jewish educators or clergy feel equipped to work with individuals or families facing such acute brokenness. This kind of work requires genuine awareness and authentic spiritual counseling, which significantly differs from pastoral counseling and from therapy. Authentic spiritual counseling, which is counseling through relationship toward greater meaning and connection with others, self, and God demands specific work and training. Teaching others (both children and adults) to embrace their humanness and how to live full, joyous lives with a set of spiritual practices and within a community is a phase of Jewish education and counseling that is often left unattended.

For these reasons, Beit T’Shuvah has launched a national program of immersive experiences for Jewish educators, clergy, and rabbinical students called the Elaine Breslow Institute. Through a process of study, personal introspection, and group work, participants will become exposed to all forms of personal brokenness. They will be initiated into an approach to counseling and teaching that integrates soul and role, inspiring their own spirituality and learning, as well as their connections with others. We have piloted this program with several groups already, yielding outstanding results. We have learned that, just as it is in our Torah, leaning into brokenness births new life, new inspiration, and new opportunity.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is an educator and spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, a residential addiction treatment center and synagogue community. Formerly a day school director and synagogue rabbi, his most recent book is “Recovery, the 12 Steps, and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage, and Wholeness” (Jewish Lights, 2014), which provides the first comprehensive approach to integrating Jewish spirituality with the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.