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