The Alter Rebbe’s Brilliant Solution to the Addict’s Dilemma

Shraga Crombie
Essays 2020 / Finalists / Winning Essays

Addiction is one of the hottest issues today from among the range of existing mental disorders, and the changes taking place in the Western world have resulted, on the one hand, in an ever-increasing number of people suffering from the problem, and, on the other hand, ever-greater efforts are being made to identify solutions, in light of the growing awareness that this is a painful, destructive disorder with serious and dangerous consequences. In the U.S., it is estimated[1] that the cost of damages caused by drug and alcohol addiction alone tops out at the astronomical sum of $740 billion a year(!), including the costs of medical treatments, losses in the labor market and more.

Moreover, over the course of recent years, it is becoming more widely understood that addiction isn’t limited to substances (like drugs and alcohol), but also includes behaviors, such as gambling, shopping, compulsive eating, and, more recently, internet addiction.[2] In the most recent edition of the DSM, the American psychiatric diagnostic manual – the DSM-5 edition, they’ve added a new diagnostic of “behavioral addictions,” which at the present time only includes the addiction to gambling but with the acknowledgement that these criteria can also include additional behavioral addictions.

How does one treat for addiction? There are currently two major approaches that exist in the realm of psychological treatment (aside from the use of medication in instances where this is possible[3]). The older approach is the 12-step program, also known as “Alcoholics Anonymous,”[4] which was developed some 85 years ago by two alcoholics and is not science-based, and the second approach is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, known by its acronym CBT, which currently includes a number of methods, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). At the most concise level, and at risk of oversimplifying, the solutions posed by these two approaches can be stated as follows: The 12-step program claims that the addict is powerless and unable to end the addiction on his own, and the solution is therefore to adopt a spiritual way of life[5] and turn to G-d for help, while cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the assumption that it is possible for the addict to change his situation, and that this can be done if he changes the thoughts in his mind and the beliefs that he holds and he changes his behavior.[6]

The Addict’s Dilemma

One of the key questions that the addict must contend with is the question of how he defines himself, and this isn’t just a peripheral issue but in fact the key and essential question here, because it can impact the entire way of how he goes about dealing with the problem. The addict who has attempted time after time to bring his destructive behavior under control but without success, must confront the question of how he should view himself: Has the time come to stop being in denial about his condition,[7] to admit his powerlessness, and, paradoxically, for this to lead him on the path to quitting his addiction, or is admitting powerlessness the wrong thing to do that will result in failure, and he must continue believing in his ability to succeed, despite all of his failures to date?

It is this question on which the two approaches are divided and couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. The 12-step program is based on an admission of powerlessness, of surender, on the addict’s recognition that he is an addict, while cognitive-behavioral therapy is predicated on a person’s capacity for change and transformation, and on the belief that one should absolutely not accept such negative ideas about oneself.

It is no coincidence that the first step in the 12-step program reads “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction,” because without admitting powerlessness – it is impossible to proceed with the program. All of the steps that follow are based on internalizing this powerlessness, and the program’s groups are universally recognized by the way that each participant presents themselves and introduces themselves “Hi, my name is… and I am an addict,”[8] and this is done so that the addict remembers and internalizes his powerlessness, and will even admit it to others – his partners in addiction and the path to recovery. The importance of admitting powerlessness lies in the fact that the solution of the 12-step program is based on the addict ceasing to deny his problem, admitting that he doesn’t have the ability to solve it himself, and then being prepared to turn to G-d to help him where he fails.

By contrast, in CBT-based programs, there is strong resistance to the person defining himself as an addict and telling himself that he isn’t capable of dealing with his problem, with the argument being that statements like these hurt his chances of success. For example, the recovery handbook for SMART[9] (an addiction treatment program based on the CBT approach) reads: “Perhaps you’ve been told, “You’re an alcoholic”; “You’re weak”; “You’re different from normal people”; to which you may have responded, “I’ll never beat this so I might as well (get drunk, smoke a pack of cigarettes, go shopping, etc.) because I can never be healthy. Why bother?” You may feel trapped in your behavior with little hope. Hopelessness often fuels addictive behavior.” This program rejects the addict’s perception of powerlessness and argues that the addict must internalize that he is certainly capable of successfully dealing with the problem.

Tanya’s Brilliant Solution

The Tanya was not written by the Alter Rebbe in order to treat mental disorders,[10] but rather as a guide for a Jew who wants to serve his Creator, but the guidance that it provides can be suitable to anyone struggling with the difficulty of quitting problematic behavior, and the addict can make use of it too.

The addict’s dilemma is described quite concisely by the Alter Rebbe right in the first few lines of his work: On the one hand, “Even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as wicked,” and, on the other hand, “Do not be wicked in your own estimation,” and he immediately clarifies that this isn’t merely a contradiction between sources in Chazal, but that this is a very practical question indeed because “if a person considers himself wicked, he will be grieved at heart and depressed, and will not be able to serve G‑d joyfully and with a contented heart,” but, on the other hand, “if his heart will not be at all grieved by this [self-appraisal], he may be led to irreverence, G‑d forbid.”

The Alter Rebbe sees straight into the inter contours of the soul of the man contending with the hardship of quitting his destructive behavior, and is quite sympathetic to his struggle, in which, on the one hand, he hears the argument that the time has come to admit that he has a problem, and “even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as wicked,” because otherwise he won’t take the matter seriously, and when “his heart will not be at all grieved by this” then “he may be led to irreverence, G‑d forbid,” and the result will be that he will not persevere at recovering himself but will instead return to his destructive ways (as the 12-step program argues). But, on the other hand, he hears the opposite argument from the voice that implores “do not be wicked in your own estimation,” because if he thinks of himself as wicked, then “his heart will not be at all grieved by this,” and the result of this will be that he will return to his destructive ways (as the cognitive-behavioral approach argues).

Both approaches present good arguments, and it would seem as if all roads lead to the same dead end.

It is here that the Alter Rebbe presents a third way – and argues that while man shouldn’t view himself as righteous, he shouldn’t see himself as wicked either, and instead he should strive to be a Beinoni (on an ‘intermediate’ level). When the addict hears this, his initial understanding of this is that ‘intermediate’ means 50% success and 50% failure, and his immediate reaction is to ask, uncomprehendingly: “Is the goal here to reach a level of success only in half of the confrontations with addiction? And is it possible to call someone who fails 50% of the time an ‘intermediate’? That is the trademark of a hopeless addict!” So the Alter Rebbe reassures him and explains that of course this was never his intention. The ‘Beinoni’ is the addict who never ‘relapse,’ but is always successful in his battle against his impulses and desires to return to an active state of addiction. When the addict hears this, he still fails to understand, and asks: “Then how can you call that an ‘intermediate’? This person is not addicted at all!” And to that the Alter Rebbe replies that indeed, when judged by his behavior, he is not addicted at all, but his essential nature hasn’t changed, and if he ceases being on guard, he will immediately return to the behavior of an addict.

So the ‘intermediate’ is something of a hybrid creature, a combination of the arguments advanced by the two opposing approaches, but one that both can agree on. The 12-step program also agrees that the addict can and must arrive at a state in which he never succumbs to his addiction. So then why does it insist on continuing to call a person who’s been clean for many years an “addict?” The reason for this is that the person’s essence hasn’t changed, even though behaviorally he is obviously not an addict at all. The cognitive-behavioral therapy approach also agrees that many years of being sober don’t necessarily indicate that a person has changed his essential nature. So then why the insistence on saying that the person is not an addict? Because the focus is on his behavior, and that’s the standard by which he is judged.

That is why the Alter Rebbe devotes the first chapters of Tanya to explaining the structure of the soul[11] and the distinction between the aspects of the soul itself (Chochma, Binah and Daas and the seven emotional attributes) and its ‘garments’ (thought, speech and action). Only after understanding this in depth is it possible to understand what a ‘Beinoni’ is, and it is only now that the addict can understand the proper path for himself. On the one hand, “do not be wicked in your own estimation” – because if he doesn’t operate and act like an addict, then he shouldn’t refer to himself as an “addict,” an “alcoholic” and so on, because such a negative outlook can cause him to “be grieved at heart and depressed,” but, on the other hand, “even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous,” even if cognitive-behavioral therapy argues vehemently that ‘You’ve been sober for years now and you no longer need to think about yourself in a negative way at all,’ you should still “regard yourself as wicked,” not truly wicked but “as wicked,” by way of comparison – and this is the ‘intermediate.’

But still the addict asks: ‘Is there no evidence from the fact that I’ve been sober for so many years that I have also undergone a change within my inner essence?’[12] To which the Alter Rebbe replies (in Chapter 13) that he should not pay heed to the voice that says that “you are righteous,” because his essential nature hasn’t changed, and in fact it’s possible that during the time that he wasn’t acting as an addict his addiction even intensified.[13]

Till When?!

When the addict internalizes the distinction between his behavior and his essential nature, he may also contend with another question that’s bothering him: “Till when will I be compelled to cope with this challenge?” Or, in other words: “Will the day arrive when I can put this whole addiction story behind me?” The 12-step program simply states “once an addict – always an addict,” and in the ‘Big Book,’ Alcoholics Anonymous, entire chapters are devoted to supporting this claim, according to which the addict, even if he remains sober for many years, remains addicted forever.[14] In contrast, the cognitive-behavioral approach argues that it is indeed possible to emerge from an addiction[15] and that it’s unacceptable for someone to tell himself otherwise, because the very thought is detrimental, and if the addict is convinced that he will have to contend with this for his entire life it will weaken his resolve and he will despair of even trying.

Here too, the Alter Rebbe takes the ‘high road,’ and asserts that though being an ‘intermediate’ is in fact a lifelong condition,[16] G-d forbid that this should drag his spirit down, but on the contrary, he must rejoice due to the understanding that this was the purpose for which he was created, and that every time he refuses to submit to his urges he bring gratification to his Creator. And how wonderful are the words he writes (in Chapter 27) “Therefore one should not feel depressed or very troubled at heart, even if he be engaged all his days in this conflict, for perhaps this is what he was created for.” And if that wasn’t enough, the Alter Rebbe explains that there are two kinds of Divine pleasure, and that it is precisely he who successfully overcomes his challenges who is the one to cause the greater kind of pleasure, more than someone who’s successful because he never faced a challenge to begin with.[17] True, “once an addict – always an addict,” but that’s only with respect to the nature of the soul, but behavior-wise there is no difference between him and someone who isn’t addicted at all, because he never surrenders to his addiction.

The same goes for when a period of time elapses during which the addict doesn’t act on his addiction, and then he suddenly feels a strong urge to relapse and behave like an addict, and he can’t understand what’s wrong with him, so the Alter Rebbe reassures him by presenting a detailed picture in which, on the one hand, the challenge itself is natural, and yet, on the other hand, the success at dealing with the challenge is equally as natural. When considering that the person’s essence hasn’t changed, it’s only natural for him to desire to return to behaving like an addict, and it makes sense that from time to time the heart will continue to crave, and the thoughts will rise to his mind. And, on the other hand, because he’s in control of the soul’s ‘garments,’ things never progress to the planning stage on how to make it happen, and he certainly doesn’t act on that desire.

The Second Dilemma: ‘The Mind is the Master’ or a Spiritual Way of Life?

Now that we’ve determined where the addict is headed – for the rank of a ‘Beinoni,’ “that is attainable by every man and each person should strive after it,” we face a question that is no less important: How do we achieve that? Here, too, the two approaches are divided and the paths they present are quite different, if not completely at odds. The 12-step program claims that the path to accomplish this is by means of adopting a spiritual way of life, which includes conducting a searching moral inventory of oneself (between man and himself), making amends with others (between man and his fellow), and improving contact with G-d (between man and his Creator).[18] The program also claims that ‘knowledge isn’t power, not even the right knowledge,’ and one should therefore not attempt to use one’s mind in the battle against addiction, but instead one must turn to a power greater than he – G-d, to seek His help, and only He can save him.[19] On the other hand, the cognitive-behavioral approach claims that the human being has been endowed with a mind, and that he can make use of it in order to change his behavior, and there is no need for spirituality or a connection with G-d as part of the addiction recovery process.

When the addict has to choose between the approaches, he stands bewildered. In both approaches he finds ideas that he connects with, as well as ideas that are foreign to him: On the one hand, the 12-step program makes a logical argument when it talks about how the solution to addiction is a “spiritual awakening,” and it explains quite well that in order to overcome addiction there is a need to connect with G-d, but, on the other hand, he is unwilling to accept the approach that his mind cannot be of help to him, because he knows that “that the mind is master over the heart.”[20] But, on another hand, the cognitive-behavioral approach is indeed based on the idea that man can use his mind in order to change his behavior, yet he cannot accept the rejection of the need for spirituality and G-d,[21] the way this approach claims,[22] and he also knows from his own experience that sometimes, despite how hard he tries, he is simply powerless in the face of his addiction.

‘From This, and From This, Do Not Withdraw Your Hand’

The Alter Rebbe presents a revolutionary approach in Tanya to this question as well, and he doesn’t see any contradiction between the two approaches. On the one hand, the Tanya is of course based on the spiritual approach (like the 12-step approach claims), and includes first and foremost the connection with G-d, alongside taking stock of his soul (in Chapter 26) and love for others (in Chapter 32). On the other hand, the Alter Rebbe bases his work on the fundamental principle whereby a person must use his mind to change his behavior, and he repeatedly insists (in Chapter 12) that “the brain rules over the heart by virtue of its innately created nature,” and therefore a person can “restrain himself and control the drive of his heart’s lust, preventing his heart’s desires from finding expression,” and (in Chapter 13) that “G‑d has granted the mind supremacy and dominion over the heart” (as the cognitive-behavioral approach claims[23]). Therefore, the solution offered by the Tanya includes spiritual awakening on the one hand, and the triumph of the mind over the heart’s desires on the other.

And what about the question whether a person can overcome his addiction with the power of his mind, or he is utterly powerless and in need of assistance from G-d? Here too the Alter Rebbe sees no contradiction between the two positions, and although he based his work on the principle that “the mind is master over the heart,” he explains (in Chapter 12) that because the ‘Beinoni’ has no control over the essential nature of his soul, and there’s a state of equilibrium between the healthy urges and the destructive urges (“Beinonim are judged by both [their good and evil inclinations]”), then the fact that he can win the battle and put the mind in command over the heart is not because of ‘his strength and the might of his hand’ but rather as a result of G-d’s assistance, and it is concerning this that the Alter Rebbe cites the words of the sages who said that “if the Almighty did not help him, he could not overcome [his evil inclination].” In other words: It’s clear that a person can succeed, but it will always be solely as a result of G-d’s assistance, and without that help – he in fact would be unable to succeed.

The Alter Rebbe devotes extensive parts of his work to explaining how the mind controls the middot (emotional attributes), and he goes into detailed descriptions of how one should use one’s mind to vanquish one’s evil inclination,[24] but is there a guarantee that this work will always be sufficient, and that a person can depend on his own power and might and as long as he keeps at it, he will succeed at overcoming his addiction, as the cognitive-behavioral approach claims? To this the Alter Rebbe replies: Absolutely not! And he explains (in Chapter 28) that if one has already tried to put the mind in control over the emotions in every possible way, and has also tried the well-known advice of averting his mind,[25] and yet he finds himself in a situation in which “he finds it difficult to dismiss [the foreign thoughts] because they distract his mind with great intensity,” then there’s nothing left for him to do except to “humble his soul before G‑d, and supplicate Him in his thought to have compassion upon him in His abundant mercies, like a father who takes pity on his children who stem from his brain — and so too should G‑d be compassionate on his soul, which derives from G‑d, to rescue it from the “turbulent waters.” This He should do for His own sake, since truly “His people is a part of the L-rd.””

So, as it turns out, here too the Alter Rebbe is standing and pointing the addict towards the proper path: First the addict must embrace a spiritual way of life and also use the intellect with which G-d has graced him to place his mind in control of the heart and to utilize every means at his disposal not to fall for temptation, and at the same time he must know that despite all of his efforts, he can’t succeed without G-d’s assistance, and he must therefore turn to Him and request that He help him, like a father who takes pity on his children.


We can summarize this all by saying that the Alter Rebbe anticipated the most modern approaches to mental health treatment for addictions, and he presents a clearer and more successful path than any approach on its own. This revolutionary and brilliant approach is presented by the Alter Rebbe with great clarity in the Tanya, the book that serves as a guide and a compass for a person seeking his way in the world.

Appendix: Addiction in the Teachings of Chassidus

Do the teachings of Chassidus contain any references to addictions in general, and to the treatment of addictions in particular? And if not – can it be possible that there is a phenomenon within the human psyche that is not addressed within the teachings of Chassidus? The following is an attempt to provide an answer (albeit a partial one) to these questions.

The use of drugs or alcohol in order to alter one’s mood is of course an ancient phenomenon and is familiar to us ever since Noach left the ark, and already in Midrash Tanchuma there’s a story that appears to describe an alcoholic.[26] On the other hand, addiction as a widespread phenomenon, as a mental disorder that affects a significant percentage of the population,[27] is something relatively new that developed in the wake of the abundance that was created in Western society over the last few centuries.

Though “’we have not seen’ is not evidence” (i.e. the absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence), searches that were conducted in index volumes and databases did not turn up almost any reference in the teachings of Chassidus to the subject of addiction and to the topic of drug and alcohol abuse generally.

There are exceptionally few references in the Rebbe’s teachings to the subject of drug abuse or drug addiction, and those do not address the method of treatment:

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) relates:[28] The Rebbe spoke with me during a private audience about various drugs that people become addicted to, and the Rebbe expressed his view as follows: “All of the work that we do in this world is intended to subordinate man to one thing only, and that is the service of his Creator, so can one conceivably allow himself to become enslaved to another thing?”

I’ve similarly heard from R. Shlomo Ives of Netanya that his father asked the Rebbe in a private audience why drugs are forbidden yet chassidim customarily drink alcohol at farbrengens, and the Rebbe replied that the drugs send a person on a course of withdrawing into oneself, while alcohol moves a person to emerge from within oneself towards others.[29]

The only letter I found in which the Rebbe[30] refers to drugs is concerning the question of using LSD in order to stimulate mystical insight, but this is a non-addictive drug and the response is therefore not dealing with addictions.

There is a letter from the Rebbe[31] on the subject of alcohol that was apparently written to an alcoholic, which includes directives on how to treat it, but without any reference to a method for mental treatment, just three instructions that seem to suit the behavioral approach: 1. Not to keep quantities of cash in one’s pocket. 2. To associate with people who will have a good influence. 3. To take medication that will reduce the desire to drink alcohol[32] and to know Tanya and Mishnayos by heart.

What can we conclude from this? On the one hand, it can be argued that the fact that there isn’t any reference to addictions is proof that the teachings of Chassidus do not recognize addiction as a mental disorder, and addiction in reality is simply a strong habit or even a “habit that becomes second nature.”[33] On the other hand, one could explain that the fact that addiction (or at least it becoming a common phenomenon) is a relatively new thing could be the reason why it isn’t addressed.

The Rebbe addressed a similar question of whether there can be a subject that isn’t addressed in the Torah in the relation to the moon landing which created many halachic questions. The Rebbe determined that this is possible and that there are issues that “recorded halacha does not discuss, because these things did not exist in those times, beginning with the era of the Mishnah, and not even during the era of the Gemara, not even during the era of the Geonim, and not even during the era of the Rishonim (who are akin to angels). And it’s therefore understandable why all the works written during those times do not contain any discussion regarding these matters, and it is specifically now, in the most recent generation, that there are many innovations in “halichos olam” (the ways of the world), and as a result there are many additional “halachos” added to the Torah.”[34]

The Rebbe makes a similar point regarding medications for physical diseases, on the subject of cancer and the treatments for it: “This disease wasn’t as common as it is today, and they therefore didn’t seek a remedy for this disease at the time. And, most importantly, the remedy for this wasn’t provided from Above. On the other hand, in recent years as this disease has proliferated . . Hashem “introduced the cure before the illness” and provided a remedy for it.”[35]

[1] Data released at the beginning of 2020.

[2] See this article on the symptoms, diagnostic methods and treatment options.

[3] See the Rebbe’s letter “Since a number of doctors are aware of medications that help overpower and overcome the desire towards alcoholic beverages and the like, and over time to eliminate it entirely, you should inquire with them and follow their directives.” Igros Kodesh vol. 22, pg. 110. Today there’s a drug called Antabuse that’s used to trigger intense vomiting after the consumption of alcohol, in order to prevent a return to drinking. (See information about the drug on Wikipedia).

[4] This essay is not intended to broach the subject of whether the program is compatible with Judaism, and will suffice with noting Rabbi Shais Taub’s book ‘God of Our Understanding,’ in which he explains that the program in fact consists of ideas that appear in Judaism and the teachings of Chassidus, and to Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski’s book ‘Self-Improvement? I’m Jewish!’ on the same subject, and, conversely, to a ruling published by Rabbi Yosef Yeshaya Braun in which he argues that the program is not compatible with Judaism.

[5] This approach is well-exemplified in the letter written by well-known psychologist Dr. Carl Jung to Bill Wilson – co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which Jung wrote that, for the addict, “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God. ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.’” And, at the conclusion of his letter: “You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”

[6] A longitudinal study that examined and compared the success rates of both approaches (comparing the 12-step program to three CBT-based programs) claimed that, as a rule, the 12-step programs showed higher rates of success, but raised the assumption that the addicts who join this program have a stronger desire to recover compared to the addicts who join the other programs.

[7] It is not for nothing that some call addiction a “disease of denial,” because one of the prominent characteristics of addicts is the refusal to admit that they have a problem, and this is why it is very important to bring the addict to a situation in which he stops being in denial so he can begin the process of recovery (see this study about the steps on the path to recovering from addiction).

[8] It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for addict, “machur,” has two meanings according to the dictionary: 1. One who was sold, who was bought by someone, who has been transferred to the domain of the buyer. 2. Someone with a very strong dependence, physically or mentally, on a particular substance (medication, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes) and who finds it very difficult to quit. In other words – the addict has been ‘sold’ to the substance or to the behavior that he is addicted to, and he is now enslaved to it. Similarly, the root for the English word “Addict” is from Latin, and it refers to a slave who was sold to his master due to an unpaid debt. Thus the very usage of the word “addict” (or “machur”) denotes helplessness, and is therefore not an agreeable term to everyone.

[9] A well-known recovery program, which is an acronym for Self-Management and Recovery Training.

[10] So it’s therefore clear that the intent here is not for a person suffering from a mental disorder (addiction) to use the Tanya as a substitute for mental health care that includes an organized program, social support and more. At the same time, however, the following can be used as guidance on how to maximize the various approaches to treatment, as well as a suggestion on how to apply the ideas of Tanya in order to create an up-to-date model of addiction treatment that doesn’t suffer from the flaws in the existing approaches, but combines their benefits in the most optimal way.

[11] Note the words of the Rambam in the first of his ‘Eight Chapters:’ “Just as the physician, who cures the human body, must have knowledge first of the body in its totality and its individual parts . . so, likewise, he who cures the soul, and wishes to improve the moral qualities, must have knowledge of the human soul in its totality and its parts.”

[12] This question is also asked by the adherents of the neurological approach (who explain mental occurrences in terms of biochemical changes in the brain), and research hasn’t yet obtained definitive results on the question of whether addiction causes irreversible change to the brain, or whether the brain recovers after a period of cleansing. There is evidence that at least among some addicts, the brain does not recover even after years of avoiding drug abuse. (See this study on a decrease in dopamine neurotransmitter receptors in the wake of using drugs). These results, in other words, support the claim that while behavior can change, the essence of a person cannot.

[13] Similarly, it’s known that if an addict relapses after years of abstinence and sobriety, it usually manifests itself even worse than before he embarked on the process of recovery, since even when the addict wasn’t exhibiting his compulsive behavior the addiction actually continued to develop ‘in the background’ (See this article on the website for the American Addiction Centers).

[14] In the chapter “More About Alcoholism,” they write: “We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control [over their drinking]. We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones.”

[15] A well-known model used in CBT-based programs is the “stages of change“ construct (Prochaska, DiClemente and Norcross, 1992), according to which recovery is not a linear pattern but a spiral one, in the course of which there are advances and setbacks, but ultimately it is possible to leave the addiction behind (although, even according to this model, there is concern regarding a return to addiction, even after abandoning it).

[16] At the beginning of Tanya the Alter Rebbe cites Iyov’s argument “L‑rd of the Universe – You have created wicked men,” and the Rebbe demonstrates (in his comments on Tanya) from the fact that Iyov’s friends did not retort that he’s mistaken, that this is evidence that G-d in fact does create wicked people, but this doesn’t mean people who are literally wicked, but instead the kind who will be confronted all their life with that which occurs to the wicked, and they will withstand the test. This approach can also answer the question of whether there are people who are born addicts, and if the answer is affirmative – then how is this not in conflict with free choice? But this is because it’s true that G-d created (or brought a person into a state in which he’s) an addict, but this doesn’t mean that he’s been deprived of freedom of choice, only that he will be confronted throughout his entire life with that which occurs to the addicted in terms of his heart’s desires, but he will succeed at keeping it under control and it will not descend into action.

[17] This is at odds with the view of the philosophers cited by the Rambam in Chapter 6 of the ‘Eight Chapters,’ who argued that he who isn’t drawn at all to immoral qualities is superior to he who’s drawn to them and keeps his inclination in check.

[18] Steps 4-7 deal with conducting a moral inventory, steps 8 and 9 are about making amends with other people, and steps 3, 10, and 11 are about improving contact with G-d (See the list of steps on Wikipedia).

[19] This is what it says in the book Alcoholics Anonymous in the chapter “More About Alcoholism:” “The alcoholic has no effective mental defense . . Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.”

[20] So, for example, the pioneering CBT treatment, developed in the 1950’s by Dr. Albert Ellis, which is known as REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy), claims that our thoughts (Rational) affect our emotions (Emotive) that affect our behavior (Behavior), which is essentially a very basic idea in Tanya (Chapter 3): That the middot (emotional attributes) are the offspring of the mochin (intellectual attributes), and the arousal of the middot brings man towards action.

[21] Note what the Rebbe writes: “Particularly since the time that one professor found the courage to declare and announce that (in opposition to the well-known individual who founded this form of therapy) belief in G‑d and religious inclinations as a whole lead to a meaningful life, are of the most efficacious manners of healing, and so on and so forth.” (Igros Kodesh vol. 22, pg. 227).

[22] For example, the SMART program claims that: “We believe that the power to change addictive behaviors resides within each individual and does not depend upon adherence to any spiritual viewpoint. The use of religious or spiritual beliefs and practices in recovery is a personal choice and not a part of our program” (quote from the recovery handbook). Moreover, the entire cognitive-behavioral approach is based on the assumption that “the superiority of man over beast is naught,” literally, and so many ideas have therefore been learned from research on dogs (Pavlovian conditioning), pigeons and laboratory mice.

[23] In practice, the Alter Rebbe provides guidance that’s based entirely on the cognitive approach alone, with no reference made to the behavioral approach. Note that the Rebbe’s letter quoted in the appendix consists entirely of advice in line with a behavioral approach, and without reference to the cognitive approach.

[24] Throughout the entire work, the Alter Rebbe explains that a person can place the intellect in his mind in control over the cravings in his heart, and he points to many methods that are comparable to tools from the field of cognitive-behavioral therapy. So, for example, cognitive therapy suggests that a person make a list of the things that are important to him in his life, and then see how they clash with his addiction, and by grasping the extent of the damage that he’s causing to the things that really matter to him, he will be moved to end it. Similarly, the Alter Rebbe says (in Chapter 14) that “even when one’s heart craves and desires,” it is possible to rebuff it, “by declaring to himself” that he does not want to harm the thing that really matters to him, which is his connection with G-d. Another exercise used in this type of treatment is to map out the benefits and the costs of the addiction, divided by short-term gain versus long-term gain, and similarly, the Alter Rebbe says that one of the ways for a person “to control the spirit of lust in his heart” is by examining the object of his lust, such as that “a woman is a vessel full of excrement,” and so on. Additionally, cognitive therapy suggests that a person probe whether his beliefs are indeed true or false. When an addict is contending with an urge, he feels as if the addiction is the most important thing in the world, and he suddenly forgets about all the harm that it causes him and he feels as if it will only do him good. Of course, this is a lie, but it’s a lie that seems real and therefore needs to be shattered. In Tanya (chapters 14 and 24), the Alter Rebbe terms this “a spirit of folly,” that covers and conceals the truth, and he explains how it’s possible to remove this “spirit of folly” that claims that even as he transgresses the will of G-d he remains connected to Him, by comparing himself to “a kal shebekalim (a most unworthy person)” who will still agree to give up his life so as not to be separated from Godliness, in comparison to the relative ease with which it’s possible to cope with his desires. It’s interesting to note that one of the tools in cognitive-behavioral therapy is that when facing the urge for compulsive behavior, it can be effective to give these feelings and thoughts a name, such as ‘the enemy,’ ‘evil,’ and similar, which is like what is says in Tanya (Chapter 29), “that one should rage against the animal soul, which is his evil impulse, with a voice of stormy indignation in his mind, saying to it: ‘Indeed, you are truly evil and wicked, abominable, loathsome and disgraceful,’ and so forth, using all the epithets by which our Sages have called it.”

[25] The advice that appears hundreds and thousands of times in the Rebbe’s letters in the series of Igros Kodesh, in particular with regard to the ‘chet hayadua.’

[26] Out of fondness for the subject, the story is brought here in its entirety: “There was a student who was a pious man, and he had a father that drank heavily. And each time he would collapse in the marketplace, youths would come and hit him with stones and pebbles, and they would yell and call out behind him, “Look at the drunkard.” And when his son the pious man would see, he would be embarrassed and would wish for his soul to die. One time, rain was falling and that pious man went out to the marketplace and was walking to the synagogue for prayer, and he saw a drunkard laying in the marketplace and a channel of water was pouring on him, and the young men and the youths were hitting him with stones and pebbles and throwing clay in his face and into his mouth. When the pious man saw this, he said in his heart, ‘I will go to father and bring him here, and I will show him this drunkard and the disgrace that the young men and youths make out of him; maybe he will prevent his mouth from drinking in the tavern and from getting drunk.’ And so he did, he brought him there and showed the man to him. What did his old father do? He walked over to the drunkard and asked him in which tavern he drank that wine from which he became drunk. His pious son said to him, “Father, for this did I call you? Rather to see the disgrace they make out of him, as this is what they do to you at the time that you drink – maybe you will prevent your mouth from drinking in the tavern.” He said to him, “My son, I swear by my life that I have no enjoyment and Garden of Eden except for this.” When the pious man heard this, he departed with great disappointment.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Shmini, 11).

[27] See the statistics on the website for the American Addiction Centers.

[28] Yechiduyot, vol. 2, pg. 21 (by Rabbi Aharon Dov Halperin).

[29] And note the guidance provided in the tract of Pokeiach Ivrim, in which the Mitteler Rebbe warns the repentant individual against drinking alcohol, even for kiddush and havdalah.

[30] See the website for Beis Moshiach.

[31] Igros Kodesh, vol. 22, pg. 110.

[32] There is great controversy on whether addictions are a disease or just a matter of willpower. From the Rebbe’s instruction to take medication it may be possible to prove that the Rebbe’s view is that addiction is a disease.

[33] Some argue that addiction is what Tanya refers to as “the heart of the wicked is not under their control,” but it would seem that this is not the case, especially with addictions that don’t involve any particular prohibited activities, like compulsive eating or shopping (and even alcohol). And especially considering that per the Rebbe’s letter to an alcoholic (cited in the main text), the Rebbe treats the issue in a manner similar to a medical problem and doesn’t claim that the solution is through ‘repenting by virtue of the love’ (as Tanya says regarding those whose heart isn’t under their control).

[34] Sicha of the sixth night of Chol Hamoed Succos 5752, Sichos Kodesh 5752, vol. 1, pg. 157 onward.

[35] Sicha of 13 Tammuz 5712, see also the sicha for Yisro in Likutei Sichos vol. 1.