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Rabbi Shais Taub Headshot

Judaism and Addiction Recovery

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Religious people, myself included, like to say that God's law is absolute, that it transcends the subjective, arbitrary and hence fleeting quality of human law. But how do you test a thing like that?

I've found a way. I call it the "Canary in the Coal Mine Phenomenon" and I've learned it by being a rabbi who specializes in working with addicts. What most people don't know about recovery from addiction is that "the program" doesn't just possess a spiritual component. The entirety of the 12-Steps is a spiritual system for living. It's not just that "Higher Power" thing most people have seen in movies where someone goes to AA. The whole program is a guide for how to live a life of God-consciousness.

Why is the program of recovery all about improving one's relationship with God? In a real small nutshell I'll say it like this. For "normal" people, spiritual fitness is a luxury. For the true addict, however, spirituality is the only effective means to bring about the complete remission of an illness that is progressive, fatal and incurable.

The pioneers of AA -- the first of the 12-Step groups -- had received a revolutionary insight from psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung revealed that neither the medical nor the mental health professions could help the alcoholic but posited that relief from alcoholism could be found through spiritual means. "Spiritus contra spiritum" Jung called it, making a play on Latin words that mean "spirituality is [the antidote] against [addiction to] spirits."

So what was that about the canary?

The canary idea was an observation I formed while writing my book "God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction." I was trying to explain how the spiritual truths of the 12 Steps were arrived at empirically through trial and error. Basically, the first people to recover using the spiritual method had to experiment on themselves to find out what kinds of behaviors were conducive to a spiritual lifestyle. It was a simple test: were they getting better or not? See, most people can live without seeking out spiritual consciousness but the addict -- the true addict -- cannot. That's what makes the addict the spiritual canary.

In the days before mineshafts had proper ventilation, miners would bring a canary in a cage down with them whenever forging into a new area of the mine. Canaries are more sensitive to poisonous gasses than human beings, so as long as the canary was alive, the miners knew the air in the new area was safe to breathe. If the canary stopped singing, the miners knew it was time to get out of that part of the mine.

A canary is not a toxicologist, or whatever expert you would consult in order to determine whether or not air is safe to breath. A canary is just a bird -- a bird that when it breathes poison, happens to die quicker than a human.

The addict, for reasons we do not fully understand, is critically sensitive to any kind of spiritual deficiency. They live and die by their ability to connect with God. If you have lived among addicts as I have, you will know that no amount of "clean time" ever means that they are cured. They can be completely chemically sober for years. And then, if they let themselves become spiritually sick, they will baffle everyone with a seemingly inexplicable relapse. Perhaps they stopped meditating. Maybe they stopped looking for ways to be of service to their fellow. Or maybe they allowed a resentment or a grudge to start eating away at their serenity.

In short, if a certain idea or practice is spiritually harmful to human beings, the addict will be the first to show symptoms. Conversely, if a certain idea or practice promotes spiritual wellness in human beings, it is evident in the addict by their relief from the compulsion to use.

So, is righteous indignation bad for you? Look at the addict who started feeling holier-than-thou and see what happened to their recovery. Is putting financial security ahead of spiritual stability a killer? Ask the addict who forgot about the God-consciousness that helped them get their feet back on the ground. Basically, if you want to know what is spiritual poison for a human being, you've got to ask a spiritual canary.

Conversely, if you want to know where there's good, clean air for your soul to breathe, go see where the canaries flourish. The spiritual canaries I know take daily moral inventories; they put principles before personalities; they show up where they're needed and not where they need something; when faced with a dilemma, they pause and humbly ask God for direction.
In this coal mine called life, who's your spiritual canary?

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