DUI and the Toxicity of Ordinariness

Many of us in Los Angeles were not prepared for the frank language we heard in shul on Shabbos. Moreover, it didn’t come from some visitors, but from the rov.

Aleinu is an Orthodox social service agency operating under the aegis of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. It enjoys a national reputation for being cutting edge. If it didn’t, Shabbos’ “Davening Under the Influence” program would have provided enough reason.

Weeks before, community rabbonim began to be peppered with backgrounders about the Shabbos devoted to addiction, in the hope that each one would use his pulpit to educate shul-goers about the issues.

Posters around town told the rest of us it was coming. Many of us, I think, expected an appeal. Instead, we were given a strong dose of reality about something that people usually either ignore, or speak about in hushed tones.

There is addiction in the frum (observant) community, and it is more widespread than anyone wants to believe. It takes lives, and it destroys families.

There are different ways a presentation could have gone. Rabbis could have spoken about the dangers (significant) to kids at risk. One of them, well on his way to recovery, died last summer. On Simchas Torah night, a 17 year old almost died of alcohol toxicity. A celebrity car accident involved two teens, one of them a former day school student who sustained critical injuries in the alcohol-related mishap. A survey of 35 kids at risk showed that 98% experimented with alcohol, 60% beginning before age 14, and 50% beginning their experimentation in shul. These boys reported that 90% of them saw religion as important in their homes, and 50% of them saw religion as important in their own lives.

A different way to go might have been to show the continuum of addiction. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has long argued that every one of us is addicted to something, and that all of us could benefit from twelve-step programs.

My mara d’asra (community rav), Rav Gershon Bess shlit”a, a nationally preeminent halachic authority, moved away from the statistics, and spoke openly and candidly about how close addiction issues were to our own shul and community. Without mentioning names, he spoke about a family that had lost a child to drug addiction. He spoke about the growing problem of gambling addictions, and how they were threatening and disrupting young marriages, and how they were affecting even individuals with advanced yeshiva background. He opined that if people learned of a young man patronizing the Commerce Casino (on the outskirts of LA), they had an obligation to see to it that his wife found out.

Addictions begin with tentative flirtation and experimentation with substances and experiences. These later turn to full-scale dependency. He argued that people committed to Torah must be more vigilant in recognizing the original tendencies to be anti-Torah and to be avoided.

There is much more that was probably covered in other shuls. A few late-night musings follow.

I believe that, at least in part, one of the culprits is a rather old one, rather than a yetzer hora (evil inclination) of modern vintage. Certainly, some people will “try anything once,” simply out of curiosity. Some of them wind up staying for the long haul. It is important to use halachic categories and language to persuade people from taking that first step.

Others, however, turn to gambling, for example, not out of curiosity, and not because they expect to profit, but for the thrill and the adrenalin rush that comes with each roll of the dice. They need the thrill because they are bored. They are bored because they cannot get up each morning, passionate about their expectations for the new day.

Decades ago, Rav Noach Weinberg all but based his pitch to the non-observant by teaching them the difference between pleasure and happiness. The former produces a quick high – which quickly vanishes without a trace. The latter is achieved by work and even pain – but produces long-term satisfaction.

Too many people within our community are not really happy. Their marriages might be good – but not great; their jobs tolerable – but not immensely fulfilling. Subliminally, they are enticed by a barrage of cultural cues, pushing fast cars, new experiences, escape into virtual reality and adventure, all at the expense of finding real happiness within the everyday and ordinary.

Torah Jews ought to have an advantage in finding happiness rather than momentary excitement. I fully realize that it is naïve to argue that the general euphoria of the committed life completely obviates the need for thrill-seeking. Clearly, in practice, it doesn’t work that way for 100% of our community. It also seems pretty clear that more people than not feel the need to punctuate ordinariness with the novel high from time to time.

It also should be clear, however, that the Torah life-style can and does produce that high for many people, and could provide it for more.

Winter break for us in LA saw an exodus to snow country. I managed to get in both skiing and snowmobiling at Mammoth, both with their attendant thrills and adrenalin rush. They were pleasurable, to be sure – but no more than (lehavdil) figuring out a tough Ketzos.

I know that I am not alone. I see the same thrill on the faces of fellow shul-goers when they come up with an interesting question on the Daf, or share a juicy vort (Torah thought) on the Parsha (Portion of the week). Why does this not happen more often, and to more people?

Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, once related that as a young man in pre-War Europe, he overheard two tailors coming out of maariv (the evening service) at the tailors’ shul on a weekday evening. “What a geshmake (tasty) maariv we just davened!” one said to the other. Prayer is an obligation, but it was also designed to punctuate ordinariness with the thrill of connection to the Divine. Why does this not happen more often today?

Part of the reason is that we position ourselves for maximum failure. As yeshiva students we insist on seeing value – against the advice of our own rabbeim and roshei Yeshiva – only in the deepest and most probing forms of learning gemara. We then go through life with few opportunities for such learning, and always feeling a sense of inadequacy, even when we are learning. We deny ourselves the thrills that could come multiple times a day.

Many of us are able to choose between a plethora of places to daven, and make our choices based on every criterion other than the most important: where we will be able to daven with the most focus and with the best forecast for future growth. We deny ourselves the thrill of at least a few moments of connection in every tefillah (prayer).

We devour hagiographies of our giants, rather than learn about their struggles and overcoming obstacles. Their greatness therefore resembles exquisite specimens in glass cages in museums, rather than something that really inspires us to take the next small step – and to know the thrill of succeeding.

On the other hand, too many of us do not avail ourselves of the works that are brutally honest about where we are, and what we can be despite our shortcomings. (The most important example, in my experience is Nesivos Shalom, by the Slonimer Rebbe zt”l.)

The most sinister devil of the commonplace, we’ve been taught, is service by rote – mitzvas adam melimudah. It turns genuine avodah (service of G-d), with its countless opportunities for the thrill of closeness to Hashem, into tired, listless mechanical performance. We thought that its danger was in denying us greatness. It turns out that it may also deny us our greatest opportunities to avoid alternative behavior that can literally be fatal.

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16 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    In this connection, I note the ridiculous faux-minhag of heavy drinking on Simchat Torah. This can’t be sending a good message to our youth.
    Neither can worshippers skipping musaf to drink alcohol on Shabbat.
    While we’re on the subject, where is it written that minors should be allowed to get blasted on Purim?

    One common denominator is adult irresponsibility, often that of parents.

  2. Shmuel says:

    You stated “As yeshiva students we insist on seeing value – against the advice of our own rabbeim and roshei Yeshiva – only in the deepest and most probing forms of learning gemara. We then go through life with few opportunities for such learning, and always feeling a sense of inadequacy”.

    My experience in Yeshiva was learning b’iyun was most pleasurable, and 2 full daily sedarim (80% of they day) and most chazara was spent on this limud as well. I am not sure why you say this is against advice of rabbeim, I found quite the opposite.

    I have been able to arrange a chabura where we do develop sugyas in depth. I do wonder , however , how many people working people really do give up learning because they cant find that same experience they had in yeshiva, and for the same reasons, never developed breadth in torah to allow full experience of other areas of limud.

  3. Nachum says:

    Well, it is less than thirty days to Purim, so I might as well point out to Bob that there’s no mitzvah for *anyone* to get drunk on Purim. (There are four mitzvos of Purim; three have nothing to do with drinking and the fourth certainly doesn’t require it.) And Judaism being what is, I’m pretty sure getting drunk, even on Purim, is very much frowned upon.

    In speaking of drinking on Purim, Herman Wouk has a cute line about “To their credit, many otherwise non-observant Jews do their best to comply.”

  4. Bob Miller says:

    There are various opinions out there, including Nachum’s, about adult drunkenness on Purim, so I didn’t want that to be part of the discussion.

    Anyhow, the basic principle for adults is to drink only until one can’t tell Cross-Currents from Hirhurim. This may take longer for some than for others.

  5. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Given the seriousness of the situation today, as so well described in Rabbi Adlerstein’s article, no reasonable adult should engage in drinking on Purim or any other time. We have whom to rely on not to drink. The last thing our young people need today is to see their parents and Rebbaim smashed.

    Rabbi Mordechai Willig has an excellent lecture on the subject here:


  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    If it leads to Hirhurim it must be assur.

  7. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘affecting even individuals with advanced yeshiva background’

    No one is immune from addiction. It strikes down the powerful and the powerless equally. If you are having a problem with alcohol, get yourself to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. If you are having a problem with drugs: Narcotics Anonymous. Gambling? Gamblers Anonymous. Compulsive overeating? Overeaters Anonymous. Money and debt? Debtors Anonymous. And if a friend or relative has a drinking problem that is affecting you, get yourself to Al-Anon.

    ‘ the ridiculous faux-minhag of heavy drinking on Simchat Torah’

    Both Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Avi Weiss have banned drinking on the premises of their shuls here in the Bronx. So has Rabbi Daniel Wasserman in Pittsburgh. It is a pleasure to be able to attend services on Purim and Simchat Torah without having to worry about someone intoxicated making a fool of themselves and bringing discredit to Torah Judaism.

    Here is a group that is active in doing something about the problem in the Jewish community:


  8. Yisrael Moshe says:

    R’ Yitzchok,

    May I make a suggestion to you how to improve your Avodas Hashem, and by connection, your overall happiness. Let us take a lesson from your favorite, the one the only R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch.

    The famous story goes that towards the end of his life, RSRH decided to take a journey to the Swiss Alps. When asked by his followers why, he told them “When I come before The Creator, he will ask me: “Shamshin, did you see my Alps?!”

    So next time you are skiing, standing at the top of the mountain in Mammoth (not quite the Swiss Alps, but close enough), take a moment to look around at Hakodsh Baruch Hu’s handywork, and say “Ma Rabu Ma’asecha Hashem!”

  9. Aaron says:

    Fascinating how we refuse to leave the cities where the shmutz is concentrated and there are ubiquitous billboards.

    Suburbs aren’t perfect, but it’s going to be easier to preserve our values where there is much less competition for our attention.

    Imagine communities living in areas that are inexpensive enough that Tatis and Emas don’t need to work multiple jobs each so that they can be home to be parents and guide their children themselves instead of the housekeeper. In cities like LA and near NY where homes routinely go for 7 figures and school construction costs are highest, the tuition burden is crushing. Now imagine communities where homes are under $200k and it’s possible to support a family with merely an above-average and not a high salary. And when our leaders refuse to do the math, are they not responsible for a problem they could solve by encouraging neo-shtetlism with either their own exodus from the urban cesspools or demanding that their hashkafic heirs (their sons and roshei yeshivos and roshei kollel) lead that exodus?

    Lastly, our urban schooldays are painfully long and deny our children the opportunity to develop healthy hobbies that can provide pleasure without the emphasis on adrenalin.

  10. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Part of the reason is that we position ourselves for maximum failure…We then go through life with few opportunities for such learning, and always feeling a sense of inadequacy, even when we are learning. We deny ourselves the thrills that could come multiple times a day.”

    This is all-or-nothing- thinking, and is not identical to the pursuit of shleimus. Since one needs to start somewhere, the avoidance itself of this mindset might be a prerequisite, or a necessary component of limud hatorah, or other areas of avodas Hashem that one is involved in. Of course, one needs to not be a perfectionist in avoiding perfectionism. 🙂

  11. Jewish Observer says:

    “the basic principle for adults is to drink only until one can’t tell Cross-Currents from Hirhurim”

    – In this day and age of machmirim, the popular shitah is to to drink all the way until you can’t tell Cross-Currents from Hamodia

  12. Jewish Observer says:

    “Both Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Avi Weiss have banned drinking on the premises of their shuls here in the Bronx”

    – it is hard to imagine heimishe rabbis doing this

  13. L Oberstein says:

    This comment is by my son, a junior in college

    interesting but while reading i began to think that perhaps genes are more responsible for addiction than environmental factors. prevention efforts might work a little but prob dont change the stats on how many people become addicted all that much. there so many aspects of personality that are genetic and I dont know how much you can get in the way of that. Treatment on the other hand is def necessary and useful. I definitely agree with rabbi twerski that we all have an addiction of one form or another. The main problem i see with educating alot of people about addiction is that it might plants seeds in their head that will lead to addiction. Kids, especially kids at risk do alot of things for attention and addiction seems like a relatively “cool problem”, if you throw in the mix that its a disease and they get to go to rehab (winter camp) I can see alot of kids trying to emulate what is described to them as “addiction”. I don’t think there has ever been a generation without this problem nor will there likely ever be one. addiction, like war and religion seems to be one of the fundamental aspects of the human condition that will never end.

  14. Lawrence says:

    Even frum psychologists and social workers need to feel that they are doing important work. This is at least the second year running that Aleinu has put out statistics to be read in all our shuls that seem exaggerated; last year it was internet addiction. Objectivity is to be doubted when social workers need a new problem to announce every year. I heard about 20% involvement in one addiction or another (not that they are all “addicted”). I do not believe this number and question the need to drum up publicity and dampen our Shabbos with self-serving figures. Not that anybody is intentionally deceiving us. Not that we should ignore the plight of our fellow man or Jew on Shabbos. But our response should be proportional and dignified. I don’t have contrary figures, just experience in several frum neiborhoods for many years. I know of tragedies due to addiction. They are rare. We should be aware and address each individual problem. We do not need hyped anniversary pronouncements of our weak spots (lo aleinu).

  15. SephardiLady says:

    Just a note based on my own observation, which I need to research more. But I have seen people who “invest,” yet their investments more closely resemble gambling because they are purely illogical. I’ll try to move this subject up towards the top of my to-blog about list at Orthonomics.

  16. Yirmeyahu says:

    People really need to pull themselves together on this. Prohibition has been tried nationally and is practiced by many/most Evangelicals. Their communities are not without alcohol problems. Pushing one’s limits once (or twice) a year IS NOT THE PROBLEM. Period. What message does it send, alcohol has its place and its limited. If you pushing you limits at ever shalom zachar, wedding, etc. that a problem and sends a bad message. But when the only time you drink in excess is when there is some basis it shows that THAT is why you are drinking and not just another excuse.

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