The Jewish Ethicist - Addiction: An Obstacle Before the Blind
I'm helping an alcoholic support her habit
Q.I run errands for neighbors for a living. One neighbor sends me to the liquor store. Since she's an alcoholic I'd like to stop, but I know she will just find another errand boy. What should I do?
A. Addiction is a major source of concern, and contemporary rabbis have found a number of profound ways of understanding it in the light of Jewish tradition. In this column I will outline and apply one approach, and next week an additional, complementary view.
All agree that we have an obligation to help keep others from destructive and self-destructive behavior, including harmful addictions such as alcoholism. Jewish tradition asserts that we are merely caretakers of our bodies, not their owners, and therefore we are obligated to give them proper care and maintenance so that they can fulfill their appointed task of carrying out God's revealed will. A famous story tells how Hillel the Elder, one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, considered proper care of the body to be a great mitzvah (commandment):
All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven, like Hillel. Once Hillel was going about, they asked him, "Where are you going?" [He replied:] "I'm going to do a mitzvah". "What mitzvah, Hillel?" "I'm going to the bathroom". "What, is that a mitzvah?" He said to them, "Yes, to keep the body from ruin". [Another time they asked:] "Where are you going, Hillel?" "I'm going to do a mitzvah". "What mitzvah, Hillel?" "I'm going to the bath house". "What, is that a mitzvah?" He said "Yes, to clean the body. I will prove it, for even the statues of kings in the public square, the caretaker gets a salary and admiration for keeping them clean. We, who are created in the image and the likeness [of the Almighty], as it is written 'For in the image of God He made man (Gen. 9:6), so much the more'." (1)
The Torah commands us, "Don't place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). Our tradition is that this verse forbids encouraging or enabling someone to act improperly. The example the Talmud provides is extending a glass of wine to a Nazirite, someone who has sworn not to drink wine. (2) (See Numbers, chapter 6.) The truth is that this example itself hints at a connection to addiction, because the vow of a Nazirite is not an ordinary one. Many commentaries explain that this vow is appropriate for someone who loses control of his behavior when he drinks. Rashi explains that grammatical root of the word "nazir" is a word meaning "abstention". So the prohibition to encourage someone's addiction is not just "one more" example of the general rule against enabling impropriety, rather it is closely related to the example chosen by the Talmud.
However, this Torah prohibition is limited to someone who actually enables the wrongdoing. The Talmud gives the example of a Nazir who is on one side of the river where there is no wine, and someone from across the river extends him a cup. But if there are plenty of other people who would give the Nazir a cup of wine if you did not, you would not be guilty of this transgression.
An additional consideration here is that an addiction is a syndrome. The "obstacle" is not a single cup of wine or a single pill, etc. but rather the overall phenomenon. I'm not an expert in addiction treatments, but to the best of my knowledge some therapies involve immediate cessation of the behavior ("cold turkey") while others involve gradually diminishing the dose. So it is not appropriate to view each individual drink as a separate transgression you are abetting.
According to your letter, you are not enabling this woman to keep up her habit since she can find other individuals to buy liquor. If it is no more difficult for her to use others, then you are not actually providing an "obstacle to the blind". Your question should be: To what extent can you make a constructive contribution to helping this woman with her problem? Jewish law and tradition would take a practical and not an ideological approach. A blanket prohibition, without limiting availability of substitutes, will not accomplish much.
It may be that your best contribution is indeed to stop working for her. If your service is worth a lot to her and having to work through someone else is giving her second thoughts about drinking, then your refusal to deliver drinks will tend to reduce her dependence on drink.
Conversely, it may be that your best contribution would be to continue working for this neighbor. It's not a good feeling to be delivering liquor to an alcoholic, but perhaps your ongoing connection will enable you to influence her purchases, encouraging her perhaps to buy fewer drinks or beverages with less alcohol in them.
Given every person's obligation to take good care of the Divine form expressed in our bodies, it is certainly an ethical obligation to avoid destructive addictions and to help others do so. However, an unyielding refusal to run errands to the liquor store may not be the best way of achieving this goal. What you need to do is to make a realistic evaluation whether such a refusal will be a constructive step in helping your customer overcome her abuse problem. Discussing the issue with a professional with expertise in understanding addiction will help you make the right decision.
SOURCES: (1) Avot deRabbi Natan chapter 30. (2) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 6b
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.