I’m a Gamblin’ Man: The 17th Century Rabbi who Battled Addiction
The remarkably honest autobiography of Rabbi Leon Modena, a great Italian rabbinic scholar, describes his heroic struggles to overcome his gambling addiction.
How would you feel if you discovered that your Rabbi – a person you respect as a wise, kindhearted scholar – was also struggling with addiction? Would his struggle make you think less of him, or even disqualify him as your spiritual guide?
This question is no mere theoretical discussion for a university ethics classroom; it’s a real-life dilemma that first came to light over 350 years ago in the Jewish ghetto of Venice.
Rabbi Leon (Judah) Modena (1571-1648), one of Italy’s greatest rabbinic scholars, began writing his autobiography two months after the death of his eldest son, Mordecai, in 1617. The Life of Judah (Chayei Yehuda), one of the earliest and most important autobiographies in Jewish history, offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a struggling Jewish family in 17th century Italy.
Rabbi Leon Modena (1571-1648)
At the same time, and with surprising frankness, Rabbi Modena admits to a lifelong struggle with gambling – an addiction which threatened his family’s financial stability in his own lifetime and has damaged his reputation ever since his passing.
With painful honesty, Rabbi Modena describes his difficult relationship with his three sons, each of whom caused him great grief. “One died,” poisoned by his experiments with alchemy, “one was murdered” by members of his Jewish gang, “and one lives in exile,” encouraged to leave the family home due to his delinquent lifestyle. His relationship with his wife was equally complicated; the sister of his intended bride, he was forced to marry her after his fiancée became ill and passed away. In later life, his wife was first sickly and later mentally ill, a situation which nearly put him over the edge even as his own health began to fail. All of these personal struggles occurred against a backdrop of instability for the entire Jewish community, which was nearly expelled from Venice in 1637.
Despite all of his travails, Rabbi Modena became one of the great Torah scholars of his time, mastering a wide array of disciplines, from the Talmud and Jewish philosophy to Latin grammar and Italian poetry.
Despite all of his travails, Rabbi Modena became one of the great Torah scholars of his time, mastering a wide array of disciplines, from the Talmud and Jewish philosophy to Latin grammar and Italian poetry. Recognized as a prodigy from a young age, he grew up to become a celebrated educator and orator whose reputation spread beyond the walls of the ghetto, so much so that Catholic friars and foreign notables often came to Venice’s Great Synagogue to hear him speak.
At the same time, Rabbi Modena authored several important works of scholarship on Jewish-Christian polemics, the history of Kabbalah and Jewish ethics. Jarringly, he includes a list of his writings immediately following his frightening description of his son Zebulon’s murder, which took place before his eyes. His books were “a source of great comfort,” a legacy in place of his sons that would ensure his “name will never be blotted out among the Jews or in the world at large."
Throughout the memoir, Rabbi Modena refers often to his “sins,” but writes openly about only one in particular: gambling. He began playing games of chance on Hanukkah when he was 23, playing off and on for the rest of his long life. By his own admission, he almost always lost, gambling away his daughters’ dowries and going heavily into debt.
Gambling, in all its forms, has been frowned upon by rabbinic authorities throughout the ages. In the Talmud, gambling is viewed as a form of theft, since the person who loses the game never really makes peace with his losses. Though not formally forbidden by Jewish law, the professional gambler is disqualified from serving as a witness in a Jewish court, for gamblers “do nothing to promote the benefit of society.”
As anyone struggling with addiction can relate to, Rabbi Modena experienced ups and downs in his fight to overcome his addiction. “During Hanukkah [December 23-20, 1598], “Satan” duped me into playing games of chance, and by the following Shavuot [May 30-31, 1599], I lost more than 300 ducats. But from then until the eve of Hanukkah [November 30, 1600], I watched myself carefully, devoting myself to my teaching for 18 months, and paid all my debts.”
Though he was able to control himself for long stretches of time, his addiction always threatened to drag him back to the card table.
Though he was able to control himself for long stretches of time, his addiction always threatened to drag him back to the card table. “In the month of Heshvan 5369 [September-October 1608], I moved into the Ghetto Nuovo… There I had many pupils throughout the winter. But I did what the angel messengers said to Sarah in answer to her denial [namely, played games of chance] until my behavior became so wild that I agreed to go live away from Venice. Through correspondence I contracted to go to Florence, to preach and to teach students for an annual salary of 220 ducats, paid by the community.” His gambling problem threatened, but fortunately never ruined his career.
Troubled by his conscience, Rabbi Modena offers excuses for his repeated lapses. His gambling episodes almost always followed some personal or professional calamity. After the death of his favorite son Mordechai, he writes “I returned out of great anxiety to the enemy . . . playing at games of chance.” Given Rabbi Modena’s tragic family life, its hard not sympathize with him. In the wake of tragedy, it’s only natural to seek some form of diversion, however transient.
Ultimately, however, Rabbi Modena himself was not satisfied with these excuses. He considered gambling to be his primary sin, “the sin of Judah,” and was troubled throughout his life by the incongruity of his rabbinic role and gambling addiction.
A fairytale ending seems to have eluded Rabbi Leon Modena. To the very end of his life, he struggled, with only partial success, to control his desire to gamble. His inability to achieve a clear-cut victory over his temptations – commonly present in Christian autobiographies of his time – significantly damaged his reputation in many circles.
Controlling our passions and temptations is not a zero-sum game. It is possible, even within our failures, to serve God with great authenticity.
But declaring Rabbi Modena a failure strikes me as simplistic and misguided. All recovering addicts understand that addictions are rarely “conquered” once and for all. The danger of a relapse is always present; battling an addiction is a long-term process that rarely comes with a definitive or perfect ending.
Delving deeper, Jewish thinkers have long recognized that controlling our passions and temptations is not a zero-sum game. It is possible, even within our failures, to serve God with great authenticity. As Rabbi Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, a prominent Hassidic Rabbi in Jerusalem with a diverse following, argues powerfully, “Every effort, every attempt, every desire, every yearning and every prayer [to God to overcome one’s temptations] brings great pleasure to the One above. In particular, when we do not succeed in overcoming the animal within us, and yet continue to struggle and do our best to overcome our inclinations - this brings the greatest possible joy to God… and is more precious to God than those moments in which we do succeed in controlling our temptations” (Sichos Hischazkus, Simchas Beis HaShoeva 5760).
During this month of Elul, the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Jews traditionally begin the process of repentance and return to God which ultimately culminates on Yom Kippur. What does this “process of repentance” consist of? Maimonides identifies three critical steps: regret, confession before God and ultimately abandoning one’s sin. Tellingly, the first two steps – the beginning of real change – consist of honesty; honesty with oneself, and honesty before God. Rejecting excuses and justifications is the first step to real and lasting change.
Rabbi Leon Modena never fully overcame his gambling addiction, but as his remarkably honest autobiography makes clear, he heroically refused to give up, continuing his struggle until the day he died. Despite Rabbi Modena’s shortcomings, he taught us that true greatness comes not with success, but through our tireless efforts to achieve them.