Drug Abuse in the Jewish Community — Substances and Scripture
It’s time to stop pretending that substance abuse isn’t a Jewish problem. For years we have labored under the illusion that nice, orthodox Jewish boys and girls are immune to the problems faced by wider society. We’ve thought (if we thought at all about the issue) that our moral codes, strong family ties and general abhorrence of the drug culture would protect us from the scourge of addiction. Sadly, this is not the case. Members of the orthodox community are as vulnerable as anyone else to substance abuse disorders — something that Jewish community leaders are finally beginning to acknowledge.
In Jewish tradition, one’s body is not one’s own property. It belongs to God — and therefore, it should be treated with the utmost respect. Inflicting deliberate harm upon it is tantamount to holy vandalism. While there is no specific restriction placed upon drugs, it is nonetheless generally understood that something that is both physically and spiritually damaging has no place within Judaism.
Having said this, alcohol is sometimes used to great effect within Jewish tradition — although alcoholism is frowned upon. Mystical Jewish sects have also been known to experiment with mind-altering substances in order to achieve (or rather, they believe they are achieving) closer union with God. In general, however, substance abuse is deeply frowned upon within Jewish communities. We are aware of how damaging it can be on every level.
We know that it destroys families, crushes the psyche, drags down society and devastates the body. We also choose to believe that, because we disapprove of it, this problem does not affect us. Alas, the truth is far from comforting. Soaring substance abuse rates within the Jewish community are causing rabbis and other Jewish leaders to break their silence and address the issue head on.
Rates of addiction and substance abuse are skyrocketing all over the United States. In particular, addiction to prescription medications (such as Vicodin) has risen sharply, which analysts believe has in turn led to an increase in heroin abuse as people dependent upon prescription opioids turn to the black market to assuage their cravings.
The government is struggling to get a handle on the situation, but the fact is that highly addictive substances are easier to obtain than ever before — and far more of us are choosing the chemically dependent life than used to be the case. We tend to have a very stereotyped view of a typical drug user: they’re the gaunt-faced losers sleeping under bridges, willing to knife their grandmothers for a lick of crack. They’re not people like us.
This stereotype does not help. In fact, the statistics show that the majority of drug users ARE people like us. They’re ‘respectable’ individuals, who hold down jobs for a surprisingly long time, have families, own property, attend synagogue, and are loved by their parents. We stigmatize and despise drug users, but there is very little separating us from them. As a community, we shame and loathe addicts. If we want to solve the problem, however, this has to stop. We need to stop turning our backs on the issue, stop treating those who succumb to substances as pariahs, and start tackling the problem head on.
Currently, Jewish people who develop addictions are subject to intense feelings of guilt and shame. They also feel that they cannot turn to anyone, due largely to the judgments they fear they will be subjected to by their wider community.
Psychologically, it is well known that shame can lead all too easily to self-loathing, which in turn circles the sufferer back around to the use of a chemical crutch. Drugs are often used to tackle feelings of shame and self-hatred. Therefore, shaming those who use drugs merely ensures that they will continue to do so until they break completely.
To pretend that the issue is not one that affects the Jewish community, furthermore, is not only to blatantly disregard the facts, but to leave those who do suffer isolated, with no means of support. It is time that we began to admit that Jewish communities are affected by substance abuse, that those who succumb are just as human as the rest of us, and that we need to do something to help those affected by addiction disorders.