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The Jewish Ethicist - Addiction: Servitude to Substances

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

It is incumbent on all Jews to work to redeem addicts from theirdestructive habits.

Q.I run errands for neighbors for a living. One neighbor sends me to the liquor store, but she's an alcoholic so I stopped. I discovered that she hasn't stopped drinking, she just found another errand boy!

A. Last week we discussed one approach to addiction: addictions are objectionable because they damage our body, which is a deposit given us by God for the express purpose of fulfilling His revealed will. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, an internationally recognized authority on addictive behavior and treatment, has suggested an additional, complementary problem: an addict, by definition, is someone who has lost control of his behavior. He is in servitude to his habit. In fact, the modern Hebrew word for becoming addicted is "hitmaker", literally "to sell oneself".

It is clear that such a dependency is worrisome from a Torah perspective. The ideal of human freedom from bondage is the central motif of the entire Torah. The Torah's central narrative is of God freeing the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt; scores of commandments are described as commemorations of the slavery itself or of the liberation, or else as lessons learned from our experience as slaves.

While the Torah does recognize the phenomenon of slavery, it makes it clear that servitude is a base status that a person must avoid. An indentured servant who agrees to extend his servitude beyond the indenture period must have his ear bored as a symbol (Exodus 21:6); the Talmud tells us that this is meant as a visible sign of rebuke for a person who despised his freedom. "The ear which heard on Mount Sinai, 'For the children of Israel are slaves to Me', and not slaves to other slaves, and yet acquired a master for himself -- let it be bored".(1)

In the case of a person who did sell himself into slavery, it is incumbent upon members of his family and his people to try and redeem him. The Torah states that if a Jew is sold to a non-Jewish master, who is not bound by the strict laws which prevent servitude from descending into slavery, it is a commandment to redeem him: "He should be redeemed". (Leviticus 25:48.)

Thus, accepting Rabbi Twerski's analogy, it is incumbent on all Jews, and particularly family members, to work to redeem addicts from their "servitude to substances" (or to other destructive habits such as gambling).

Like last week's approach, this also has a thematic connection to the status of the Nazirite, a person who has sworn to refrain from drinking wine. The well-known medieval commentary of Avraham Ibn Izra suggests that the grammatical root of the word Nazir is the word for "crown": "For all people are slaves to worldly desires, but the true king, who has a tiara and a royal crown on his head, is one who is free from his desires". (2)

However, the obligation to redeem slaves itself has practical limits and exceptions. Maimonides writes: "Someone who sold himself and his children to a non-Jew, or who borrowed from them and they captured or imprisoned them for their debts, the first and the second time it is a mitzvah to redeem them. But the third time there is no need to redeem them, although we do redeem the children after the father dies. And if they seek to execute him, we redeem him even after a number of times". (2) The commentaries explain that when someone is determined to live a life of servitude, there is little that we can do to dissuade him. Merely buying him out of servitude has been proven worthless; he returns each time. One obvious parallel would be someone who has been compelled to get treatment, but has returned to his habit.

But if the habit is life-threatening, we would still be obliged to endeavor to help -- like the slave who is sentenced to death.

So in the case of your customer, you do have an obligation to try and redeem her from her addiction, but your obligation is only commensurate with your ability. If you believe that refraining from running errands to the liquor store will help her on the road to cure from her addiction, by all means adopt this tactic. But if you think the most constructive route is to maintain your involvement and use any influence you have to reduce the addiction itself or its destructive effect on your client's life, that would be the preferred approach. As we explained last week, consulting with a professional who has expertise in understanding addiction could help you decide how you can best help your client with her unfortunate dependency.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 22b (2) Ibn Ezra commentary on Numbers 6:7. (3) Maimonides' Code, Gifts to Poor 8:13, based on Babylonian Talmud Gittin 46b.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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