Chassidut, Polarization and the Opioid Crisis
Essays 2018 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
People are dying in record numbers. From 1999 to 2015 over 516,000 people died of drug overdoses, most of these from opioid derived drugs. Opioids are drugs extracted from the Poppy plant. They represent a class of some of the most addictive drugs known to man. This is the crisis of our time, as there is scarcely a community that remains unaffected by this epidemic. There has unfortunately, become a political gridlock around this issue, as liberals and conservatives argue as to how best to handle the catastrophe.
While conservatives maintain that drug users should face harsh penalties, they also advocate that drug criminalization laws be reinforced as a social deterrent. Whereas conversely, the liberal position is that drugs be decriminalized, and that addicts be treated with compassion, as sufferers of a disease. These two sides have become polarized to the point that discussion is no longer about finding a solution and has instead become mere ammunition in the arsenal of political policy.
As people continue dying, the question remains, how can we stop fighting each other for long enough to find a solution to this crisis? In order to solve our issue, we must first understand as to why these positions are an inevitable part of our makeup as a society from both a psychological and Chassidic perspective. We must also examine why it is that both conservatives and liberals find it so difficult to come to a consensus. Finally, we shall discuss what we can do to overcome our tendency toward polarization. To do this, we must first understand the Chassidic concepts of the sefirot and Seder hishtalshelut (The spiritual cosmos), as well as the personal connection to the sefirot that we all possess. We will also examine the concept of bittul (nullification of self) as the linchpin that bind these concepts and makes synthesis possible.
The opioid epidemic has been devastating the United States for decades, but it is only recently that we have begun seeing a staggering spike in the death toll. This is partially due to a substance called fentanyl being added to heroin and other illegal drugs. Even more so, fentanyl is an incredibly powerful drug that makes an overdose almost a certainty. Yet, as the problem continues to get worse, it seems like Washington has moved further and further away from reaching a solution.
To begin to understand our conundrum we must first examine the reason why liberal and conservative viewpoints exist and seem to both be logical positions. We must take a deeper look at the temperamental makeup of people and begin to examine personality. When evaluating personality, scientists use a mechanism called “The big 5 model “. This model consists of 5 traits that all humans seem to share to a larger of lesser degree. They are: extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of these character traits represents a range between two extremes. Most people fall somewhere on the bell curve. People can either be high or low in these characteristics, with higher associations correlating with more pronounced characteristics. There is excellent evidence to suggest that these traits are universal and occur across all cultures.
We will focus specifically on the contradictory traits of openness and conscientiousness. People who are high in openness, tend toward characteristics such as imagination and insight, and tend to be more adventurous and creative. People low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking. People high in conscientiousness tend to exhibit high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors, they also tend to be organized and mindful of details. According to a study done at by Alan Gerber at the American political science review, the greatest indicator of political affiliation among the 5 factors is how highly people rank in the traits of conscientiousness and openness, with people leaning toward conservatism being low in openness yet high in conscientiousness. While people who are high in openness but low in conscientiousness are usually predominantly liberal.
Since the radicalism of their views is directly associated with how extreme they are in each of these traits, this would indicate that the reason that liberals and conservatives cannot find common ground is because people are born with different ways of viewing the world. Moreover, these two groups have radically different standards and criteria for what they deem to be important values. As one study found, liberals make value judgements based on evaluating how harmful and fair they perceive the issue in question to be, while conservatives tend to make decisions based on purity and how it relates to authority.
This can provide some insight on the positions that liberals and conservatives adopt on narcotics. Conservatives want to restrict drugs and discipline offenders, because the values they care most about are purity and authority. They want to remain untainted in a rigid system of morality. Liberals are primary concerned with the welfare of people and therefore want to assist addicts if they can. They also for this reason have a strong reluctance to imprison those caught with illicit substances and advocate a compassionate view of addicts. Unfortunately, there are inherent flaws with both positions. The conservative claim, that penalizing illegal drugs will cause a decrease in their use, while well intentioned, is twice untrue, as most people seem to get hooked on legal painkillers first and only then move to illicit substances. Additionally, studies have shown that once dependent on narcotics, people will disregard consequences just to get their next fix, thereby rendering the efficacy of laws designed to deter potential users counterproductive.
The liberal solution has its pitfalls as well. When claiming that those addicted to opiates be only treated as sufferers of a disease that they cannot control, they rob people of any agency in their own lives. This harms the addict as it gives him no hope of overcoming his environment. We can now understand why each group sees the other side’s position as not only wrong, but harmful, as it stems from the lack of shared fundamental values.
To explore a solution, we must first examine three key aspects of seder hishtalshelut (the spiritual cosmos) according to Chassidut. The Kabbala explains that G-d created the world using ten mechanisms called sephirot that condense his light, in order to allow the world to exist. The three sefirot that we will be focusing on are Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet.
Chesed(kindness) is the attribute that connotes unconventional giving. It is the pure act of giving for the sake of itself. Contrarily Gevurah (severity) is the attribute of restriction, both of oneself and one’s abilities. It is the property of rigid structure and clear borders. Upon analysis, these two distinct groups embody extremes between chaos and order. Chesed deals with all things creative and free flowing, as we learn that this attribute is expressed based on the compulsion of the giver, to express what is within himself. It is a pure force of nature that expresses itself by seeking to be free of limitation. Contrarily, Gevurah seeks to deal with people based on merit and sets limitations corresponding to what is deserved, no more, no less.
While these two groups are fundamental opposites, our sages relate that each is necessary, with neither surviving without the other. For the Chassidic tradition has taught, that if G-d had created the world with only Chesed or Gevurah the world would be unable to exist, as our decisions would become meaningless in the face of pure unequivocal love or be crushed under the weight of harsh judgement. We learn as well, that human beings contain all sefirot within us. We are all a microcosm of the greater being. Consequently, our proclivities toward different sefirot give rise to our distinct personalities. Some people are rooted in Chesed while others have a proclivity toward Gevurah. This being the case, how can we interact with the world in a balanced manner if we are being drawn in opposite directions by our very nature?
Chassidut offers a brilliant and elegant answer in the guise of a third, middle path that balances these two extremes. This is the path of Tiferet (beauty). While Chesed and Gevurah each seek to polarize as chaos and order respectively, each giving or restricting as a compulsion of self-expression, the middle path of Tiferet seeks to synthesize the two extremes into something that responds to the problem or situation at hand, without acting on a compulsion from itself. Tiferet allows for a balanced approach for dealing with other people and the world, based on what is needed to achieve a desired outcome. The importance of this middle path must not be understated, it is what allows us to act as the situation dictates without polarizing to either extreme of chaos or extreme order. There is one last important piece of this puzzle, that of bittul or nullification of self to a greater idea. The third path requires us to detach from our own biases and act as the situation calls for, regardless of our own orientation on the issue, that is only achieved with the implementation of bittul.
We can now merge our Chassidic model of personality with our psychological one. Conscientiousness and Openness correlate almost perfectly with the sefirot Chesed and Gevurah, which are also chaos and order. Conscientiousness is the value of imposing order and restriction, which corresponds to the Gevurah precisely. While Openness is the embodiment of free expression and novelty, which lines up with Chesed. We can now see why people hold fast to their political opinions and identify with them so strongly. Liberals and conservatives almost seem to be the two default methods for viewing the world. These opinions are orientations of viewing life based on differing personalities.
Neither is inherently right or wrong as both liberal and conservative viewpoints have a basis in Chasidic and psychological thought. These two sides will always exist, and both are needed to ensure that we do not become too extreme in either kindness or severity. This being the case, we still need a way of bridging the chasm of differences in political opinion if we are ever to solve this opioid epidemic. Here we utilize the third, novel approach of the middle path of chassidut.
This approach is the path of Tiferet, it is the blending of the two opposite viewpoints into one that utilizes the strengths of both. The liberal and conservative viewpoints each have their strengths and weaknesses but when you merge them their strengths combine to form something new crafted specifically to the situation. We must find a viewpoint that treats addicts with compassion but still has them take responsibility for their actions so that they can feel as though they still have value in this world. Once we recognize that other people have opinions that merit consideration we can stop shouting over each other in a desperate attempt to make our position heard. Only through Tiferet can we be effective and balanced as we confront adversary.
The vital component that allows this process to work is bittul, as both parties must to see past their individual predispositions and recognize that this problem is too dire to allow for infighting to weaken our response. Only the individual with bittul can truly step out of his echo chambers to actually hear what it is that people are saying. A method for deciding an approach based on the path of bittul would be to look for the empirical evidence that has been proven to work, as we can look beyond our own narrow beliefs. Perhaps we will find a solution that works despite not falling into either party’s agenda. Like G-d creating the world with Chesed and Gevurah synthesized into Tiferet, we must create a system where both approaches are merged into a practical application, using Tiferet to apply them as needed to the situation at hand.
Some practical steps to solve polarization by way of Tiferet and bittul are:
• Realize that people who have different viewpoints then us might have legitimate opinions that deserve consideration
• Understand that their opinions are often based on their personalities, not ignorance or malice
• Acknowledge that our focus should trying to solve the problem, not demonizing our opponents
• Recognize that we need both the orientations of Chesed and Gevurah synthesized through Tiferet to achieve a balanced solution
• Reflect on what element of kindness or severity would best serve the situation instead of acting on impulse
• Identify that we must use bittul to step out of our echo chambers and finally hear what people are truly saying
• We must look past our own wants and desires in the face of a larger issue
• Look at the actual evidence of what works, instead of rehashing political positions
• Implement effective measures regardless of whether it fits with our political agendas
Since we parallel the world on a micro level, just as balance was needed in creation, balance too is needed in our lives. We must not only react based on our biases but also search with an open mind for a solution. Even if our opinions differ we still need to work with our opponents to craft policies that will help those in need. It is the attitudes and belief systems of each party that are inhibiting an effective response, by embracing what has been proven to work empirically we can finally overcome this problem to find an effective solution.
If we as individuals take responsibility to listen and work with those on the other side, the result will be an overall improvement to the system, as these values become expressed. It is the hope of the writer that as we find middle ground with our opponents and synthesize our perspectives we will be able to craft balanced, results oriented policies to put an end to the problem of polarization so that we may solve the opioid epidemic.
Sources: Opioid epidemic in the United States
• Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2016 – CDC
• Scientists’ personality, values, and well-being – NCBI – NIH,
• Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts (2010) by Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber, David Doherty, Conor M. Dowling, and Shang E. Ha. American Political Science Review 104 (February): 111-133
• Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations, Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek
• Today’s Heroin Epidemic CDC.gov
• Tanya, igerret hakodesh 15 p121b
• Pardes rimonim 1:8 23:23, Mevo shearim1:1:1
• Shaar hayichud ch5 mittler Rebbe
• (Maamarei Admur HaEmtza’i, p. 8