Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Psychology, Judaism and Charlie Brown: The Layers of Abraham Twerski

October 26, 2012 2:57 am 0 comments

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski speaks in East Hampton, NY this summer. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

EAST HAMPTON, NY—Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski is the scion of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, a Torah scholar, and a world-renowned psychiatrist and educator specializing in the treatment of substance abuse. Of all his possible sources of inspiration, comics are not the first that comes to mind.

Yet during a speaking engagement this summer at the East Hampton Jewish Center, Charlie Brown and friends peeked out from under the rabbi’s hoary beard on a bright red necktie.

Indeed, Twerski was paying homage to cartoonist Charles Schulz and his comic strip, Peanuts.

Schulz was “one of the most intuitive psychologists in the United States,” Twerski—who knows a thing or two about that field—toldJNS.org.

“[Schulz] had tremendous insights… [Peanuts character] Linus, he says, is clearly an addict—symbolized by his ever-present blanket,” Twerski said, noting that he had collaborated with Schulz on several books exploring relationships and spirituality and considered him an astute commentator on American society.

In 1972, when few would admit that problems of addiction actually existed in the Jewish community, Twerski founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Forbes magazine has named the facility one of the nation’s top 12 rehabilitation programs.

Gateway specializes in the treatment of alcohol and other drug dependencies; Twerski specializes in the treatment of people. The program he developed incorporates wide-ranging and innovative methodologies, integrating Jewish ethics and morality, concepts of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) “12 Step” program, traditional clinical psychology, and biochemical treatment. He remains the institution’s guiding spirit as its medical director emeritus. At age 82, he splits his time between America and Jerusalem, where he founded the Shaar Hatikvah Rehabilitation Center for Prisoners in Israel. The rabbi has written or co-authored 60 books.

In the gentle glow of a late morning in the Hamptons, the octogenarian rabbi appeared almost ethereal. Dressed in a formal suit at the informal breakfast under the East Hampton Jewish Center’s backyard tent, the rabbi exuded an aura of respect and dignity. The reverence with which he was approached as he exchanged greetings and shared brief conversations was palpable.

Twerski spoke about very dark topics in the sun-drenched sanctuary. His discussion of the depth of the problems of addiction in the Jewish community—from alcohol to substance abuse to the Internet—appeared to shock many in the audience.

“We are living in unbelievably difficult times…a difficult time to raise adolescent children,” he said.

The program created by Twerski in the treatment of chemical dependency incorporates methodologies developed by AA, Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon techniques, programs often perceived as having a “Christian” orientation. Twerski says synagogues “are finally opening their doors to 12 Step meetings.” With wry humor, he noted, “Even if a synagogue has an AA program, going is seen as a shandeh (disgrace). Jews are more likely to attend a meeting in a church where no one will recognize them.”

Twerski expressed his hope that as more synagogues and Jewish institutions are open to AA, that may change.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, senior rabbi of the East Hampton Jewish Center, was the rabbi of Central Synagogue of New York City from 1970-1985. Under his leadership, the first AA group to ever meet in a synagogue was invited to the major New York congregation. His outreach to Jewish alcoholics and integration within the healing community was a first for a congregational rabbi.

Twerski says AA program concepts are not “alien to Jewishness” and have great “compatibility” with Jewish theology. His interpretation of the “12 Steps” is an inherently Jewish one. Acknowledgement of a greater power that can restore health and wellbeing is a fundamental Talmudic belief. Recovery, according to Twerski, requires responsibility, and divine help will be forthcoming only when one does his share of the work.

“The Talmud says there is good and evil inclination in every person… The evil inclination seeks absolute freedom, not to be restrained,” he said.

Twerski warned that we are living in a “culture that demands instant gratification.”

“Kids can’t tolerate the least bit of frustration,” he said. Contemporary culture doesn’t pay attention to consequences, but rather allows an “if it feels good, do it” attitude, according to Twerski.

“The pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of pleasure,” he said.

Asked if at least part of the addiction problems arising in young-adult patients might stem from the rampant use of medication in the treatment of children, Twerski told JNS.org that he is a proponent of discipline, cautioning that the addicted person—child or adult – must feel that self-control is for his or her good, and accept responsibility for actions. As a physician, Twerski also looks at the biochemistry of addiction.

“As long as the brain is affected by chemicals, doctors can do nothing,” he said.

Twerski stressed in his lecture that it is important for the Jewish community as a whole, especially spiritual and communal leaders, to learn more about alcoholism and chemical dependency. He believes the treasury of Jewish tradition and learning has much to offer and that AA-style programs can be an invaluable ally for recovering Jews everywhere.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Book Reviews Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    It is cocktail hour on an April afternoon in 2004. The sun is hot on Amsterdam’s canals, and I am sitting at Café den Leeuw on the Herengracht with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is still a member of the Dutch Parliament, and we talk about Islam. Specifically, we talk about the concept of “moderate Islam,” or what she calls “liberal Islam.” And she has one word for it. “It’s absurd,” she says. “It’s complete nonsense. There is no ‘liberal […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    Everybody knows that cooking varies from country to country. There are Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, etc. We associate different styles of cuisine with different languages. Do we also think of the association of different cuisines with different dialects? We should, because cooking also varies from region to region. Litvaks and Galitsyaners have their own traditions of preparing gefilte fish. Marvin I. Herzog, in his book The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History (Indiana University, Bloomington, and Mouton & Co., The […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    An analysis of New York Times wedding announcements showed that women married in Jewish ceremonies were less likely to take their husband’s last names than those married in Roman Catholic ceremonies, the Times reported on Saturday. The largest gap between the two groups was in 1995 when 66 percent of Catholic women took their husband’s names and 33 percent of Jewish women did the same. Nearly half of the women featured in the publication’s wedding pages since 1985 took their husband’s name after marriage, while about […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    JNS.org – Through appreciation of both his comedy and humanitarian work, legendary Jewish entertainer Jerry Lewis is staying relevant at age 89. The only comic to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Lewis added another award to his trophy case in April, when he received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Gordon Smith, NAB’s president and CEO, said the organization was “honored to recognize not only [Lewis’s] comedic innovation, but also his remarkable […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli athletes marked a successful day on Sunday, as gymnasts won multiple bronze and silver medals in the 2015 European Games in Baku. The Gymnastics team won two silver medals and one bronze in group events, while Neta Rivkin, an Israeli Olympic gymnast, won bronze for the Solo Hoops event. Sunday’s gymnastics wins follow Sergey Richter’s bronze on June 16 for the Men’s 10 meter air-rifle, and Ilana Kratysh’s silver for women’s freestyle wrestling. The 2015 European Games in Baku are […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Russian-American Jews are some of the most successful ballroom dancing competitors in the U.S., South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) Radio reported on Thursday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said their success can be traced back to Jewish discrimination in the former Soviet Union. Because of the prejudice they faced, Russian Jews had to perform better than their peers in every field, including dancing, in order to have a chance of getting ahead. “They knew that if they […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    An Israeli dancer made use of Jewish props in an extraordinary routine that left judges amazed when he auditioned for season 12 of TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance on Monday. At first, the panel of judges appeared confused when Asaf Goren, 23, began his audition in Los Angeles with a tallit (prayer shawl) over his head and the blowing of a shofar, which he explained “opens the sky” for people’s prayers. However, as soon as he started his “Hebrew breaking” performance, […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    JNS.org – A fairytale ending to Jewish basketball coach David Blatt’s first season in the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not meant to be, as the Blatt-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night dropped Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, 105-97, to lose the best-of-seven series 4-2. Blatt, who just last year coached Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv franchise to a European basketball championship, failed to finish a second straight hoops season on top. But after the Cavaliers began the NBA […]

    Read more →