Senior Sermon for the Hebrew Union College

Delivered at the Hebrew Union College – JIR, Los Angeles, 6 November, 2014

Back in September, in preparation for the High Holidays, I attended the joint Slichot service.  A tiny bit of background before I proceed with my story…there are two organizations that came together for the event.  One is a large synagogue in Los Angeles.  The other is Beit Tshuvah.  The synagogue is well known and prestigious, with an internationally acclaimed senior rabbi and many very successful congregants.  

Beit Tshuvah on the other hand, is a rehab center located on Venice between La Cienaga and Robertson.  It is significantly smaller than the synagogue, but also does excellent work.  Beit Tshuvah has just built a new synagogue, of which it is quite proud, but is no where near the scale the grand edifice of the synagogue.

Most importantly, Beit Tshuvah’s mission is to help people recover from addiction, all kinds of addiction: alcoholism, sex, gambling, weed, porn, meth, eating disorders, oxycodone.  The residents of Beit Tshuvah go through a very difficult recovery process, sometimes stretching out for years, based around the 12 steps (a traditional recovery program originally designed for alcoholics) and Jewish spirituality, even though not all residents are Jewish.  One of the most heart wrenching aspects of working at Beit Tshuvah is understanding the level of stigma that the residents feel vis-a-vis “the outside.”  Some of them were highly successful as everything from musicians to financiers, while some of them had never moved out of their parents home prior to arriving.  What they do have in common though, is they all feel that society has marked them [out] as addicts, and as a result they face judgement from future employers, family, and friends.  Why do they garner so much stigma?  It is because even though their drug use, their alcoholism, their addiction of whatever stripe, was a response to an anxiety, and a larger percentage of society is addicted than we’re willing to admit, but they were the ones who got caught, as if the proverbial shower curtain of their respectability and dignity was brutally torn away leaving them standing naked and vulnerable before the rest of society.

Social pressures, family strife, overwork, unemployment, self image problems, all these are factors that lead people to addiction, and I would be willing to bet that many in this room, on some level, rely on addictive behavior to escape their stresses.

So these two institutions came together in September for a Selichot service.  A Slichot service is a nighttime or early morning penitential service that starts (for Jews of Ashkenazi or European descent) motze Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  The service involves liturgical poetry, songs, a Vidui (confession), and recitation of Avenu Malkeinu.  It can be one of the most vulnerable moments of the year for participants, if the service is conducted well.

This year, because of personal connections between some of the clergy, the synagogue and Beit Tshuvah decided to conduct their Slichot service together at the synagogue.  Residents of Beit Tshuvah were driven, under supervision, to the synagogue, where they were to participate in a living demonstration of the possibility for human beings to effect tshuvah through dedication to therapy and self-exploration, as informed by Jewish values.  For the synagogue members they were to be a physical representation of every persons’ vulnerability and capacity for failure and then return.  For Beit Tshuvah residents, it was to be an affirmation that those whom society deemed “great and good” acknowledged and accepted the residents of Beit Tshuvah among them, jointly furthering their capacity for repentance and acceptance of human frailty.  The evening could have been an incredibly powerful symbol…but it wasn’t.

As my wife and I had come, not as guests of Beit Tshuvah, but actually as guests of the synagogue, we were seated towards the back amongst some of the oldest and most involved families.

The service began and the choirs of the synagogue and Beit Tshuvah began to sing together.  About half way through the service, one of the Beit Tshvuah clergy ascended to the podium to give a sermon.  Towards the end of his sermon, the speaker remarked, “and maybe next year, you all will come to our new sanctuary at Beit Tshuvah, and we’ll hold our joint service there.”

From somewhere near where I was sitting, I overheard a smattering of laughter and derisive snorts, followed by “yeah right” muttered in sotto voce.

I have not told this story to malign the population of the synagogue.  In fact, I want to tell you that the congregants are as trapped in a vicious cycle of stigmatization and fear in this story as the addicts themselves.

You see, addiction is heavily stigmatized because addicts represent a very deep anxiety that is spread across all of society.  We can all feel something is off in the way our society operates, that we’re overworked, overstressed, and most important of all, that our positions of respectability are precarious.  When faced with an addict in recovery, we not only face the fear that we might become like them one day, or secretly already are and are barely hiding it, but the fear is made more intense by the pariah status of addicts in American society.

Life in America in the 21st century is highly unstable.  Our financial system is thoroughly confounding, many of us are in debt, or if on the other hand, we are successful, and we are constantly reminded we are on the brink of an economic crash that could instantly wipe out everything.  Our quiet moments are increasingly pierced by the beep of an incoming text message or email, we take less vacation as a culture than most of the world.  We are caught in traffic much of the day, and are regularly accosted by advertising that plays on our insecurities.  We strive to live up to the expectations we can never meet, to lift a line from Radiohead, “I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul, but I’m a creep, I’m a loser, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here.”

As a result, we have a huge problem with addiction just under the surface.  According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 30% of all adults have diagnosable anxiety disorders, as do 13% of children between 8 and 15.  Let me repeat, 13% of children between 8 and 15 have some form of a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder.  The statistics for ADHD, depression, and personality disorders are similarly shocking.  

Rabbis are not immune, I’ve met several successful rabbis who made it through their whole very prestigious career while hiding an addiction, and some who got caught.  I’ve even, let me modify that, especially met rabbis who were driven to their addiction by being overworked and over-stressed.

What we have done through a tacit societal agreement, is to cordon off a percentage of people whose addiction exceeds tolerable limits and sent them to rehab in order to “reintegrate them” into society.  Our coping mechanism for the deep and pervasive anxiety we all face is just to accept that our society produces a certain number of burn outs, people who can’t hack it.  We would prefer to say that a token number of our population is deeply ill and needs to go to rehab rather than admit the truly staggering percentage of society that is suffering.

We lie to ourselves, we tell ourselves that the folks in rehab are ill, or somehow morally weak, lacking in self control.  If they were really good people, we think subconsciously, they would be able to control their appetites.  The tipping point for us, the moment when someone goes from simply “indulgent” with their behavior to an “addict” is the moment their addiction erodes their productivity as a member of society beyond tolerable limits.  

Let me repeat, addiction becomes a problem for us when it erodes a person’s productivity and membership in society beyond what we deem appropriate.  Thus we have the term “functional alcoholic,” people whose alcoholism is tolerable since they still show up for work.  We can do something about all this, but if we truly want to address addiction, we must throw away the link between morality and productivity.

Back in 1932, Aldous Huxley published A Brave New World, a book in which society had embraced a dehumanizing form of economics.  In the book, citizens of the Brave New World were indoctrinated as embryos to take a drug called SOMA whenever they began to feel troubling emotion.  “I take a gram and I merely am” said the indoctrination, or “a gram is better than a damn.”  The drug, which was dispensed by the government, would nullify anxiety or bad emotion and send the user on a “SOMA holiday,” anything from a mild euphoria to a vegetative state, depending on how much you took.  One character in the book faces such anxiety about not fitting into regular society, that she decides to go on SOMA holiday permanently and eventually dies of SOMA overdose.  She is the extreme case, but in Huxley’s vision, all of society uses SOMA to some degree, in order to crush bad emotions and remain a productive member of society.

This is where we are today, except in place of SOMA we have: Vicodin, weed, antidepressants, gambling, sex addiction, alcoholism.  When we have to face the scope of illness in society we recoil, we prefer to make pariahs out of a percentage of the population we deem addicts, and sleep easier – duping ourselves into believing we are addressing the problem.

On some level though, we realize that we are not truly addressing the underlying problem that causes addiction.  The folks at the Slichot service, the ones who laughed condescendingly at the idea of holding joint services at Beit Tshuvah rather than the synagogue – in reality they laughed because deep down they were terrified at what the suggestion represented.  It was easier at that moment, to hide behind a facade of condescension than to face the reality that the clients of Beit Tshuvah live in the same society, with the same anxieties, as they do, and the anxieties are getting stronger.  Consequently, addiction rates are going up, not down.  Each and every one of them knew it, or they wouldn’t have had to hide from it, they wouldn’t have had to create a sense of distance from it, and they wouldn’t have laughed.  

If rehab – if addiction therapy , were really the solution for widespread addiction, when faced with someone in recovery we would feel human compassion, the same as we feel for someone undergoing chemotherapy.  As uncomfortable as it makes us, today we desperately need the valuable work of institutions like Beit Tshuvah to help addicts recover from the product of their anxieties.  At the same time we hope that tomorrow there will be no need for Beit Tshuvah at all, that tomorrow there will be no more addicts.  If that is what we want tomorrow to look like, we must start addressing the sources of our anxieties, the things that cause addiction: our work schedule, our communal fears, our insecurities about body image, wealth, acceptance, and success.

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