The Radical World of the Recovery Rabbi

By McCarton Ackerman 03/21/12

Rabbi Shais Taub has turned heads with his very unorthodox views on recovery. But his teachings are surprisingly in line with the 12 Steps.

Danny Jock

Rabbi Shais Taub is not your typical rabbi. At 37 years old, the Pittsburgh native is the Executive Creative Director of Jewish.TV, has been profiled in The New York Times and received plenty of mainstream press for his articles on topics like the death of Amy Winehouse. Taub’s claim to fame? For the past six years, he’s been working to make the 12 steps relatable to religions across the spectrum. His controversial thesis that addiction has little to do with chemical dependence and is instead caused by the psychic pain inflicted by the lack of a relationship with God is the central argument of his best-selling 2011 book, God Of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery From Addiction

In our exclusive interview, Rabbi Taub talks about attempting to fill a spiritual void through addiction, the powerlessness of people to help loved ones overcome a drug problem, and how someone in recovery can know if they are on the right spiritual path. 

Addicts have the existential pain many of us do, but they feel it more acutely. Normal people have the luxury of being able to live in a state of spiritual laxity and get away with it.

What made you get into addiction treatment?

Rabbi Shais Taub: I was always fascinated by it. My father was a psychologist, so i grew up basically being an amateur psychologist. I was always looking for how people could live better and have happier lives. The frustration I had was in finding practical implementation. When I began working with Jewish men in recovery (at a Milwaukee Chabad House in 2006), I started to see there were people who had the worst kinds of problem with addiction. The medical profession, the court system, even their families threw up their hands at these people. But I also saw them have radical life transformations due to their spiritual transformations once they gained a relationship with a Higher Power. They went from having awful lives to awesome lives. I’ve seen it work firsthand. And through divine providence, different junctures in my life that kept pointing me back to this field.

How do ancient Jewish principles relate to 12-step treatment programs?

Rabbi Shais Taub: There are certain universal spiritual laws—or certain truths—that are applicable for all people and in all times. For instance, if you live selfishly and end up hurting people, then you will be in pain unless you find a way to deeply distract yourself—such as through self-medication. These kinds of "laws" did not come into being because somebody said they were true: they are true already and then you live life and see that this is what it is. The 12 steps were developed by people who were empirically observing the results of what happens when you live congruently with these truths—which is why they do a great job of describing how a person who’s spiritually ill gets better. 

But the 12 steps only explain the how—not the why. Because of my knowledge of mysticism, Kabbalah, and Jewish spiritual wisdom, I can give addicts insights into why these things are true. People often appreciate this because it corroborates what they've already been experiencing and feeling but also gives them the revelation of why they’re feeling that way. Studying the Torah is sort of like looking at the architect's blueprints and understanding why the building looks the way it does. One of the concepts I find that really resonates with people is when I use Kabalistic and Chasidic mystical ideas to explain that all of our existences lie within ourselves. Self-consciousness causes us to feel separate from this state of oneness and in order to find peace, we must return to it through acts of self-transcendence. In simple terms, self is the problem. The false solution is distraction and self-medication—what I call getting out of yourself. The real solution is spirituality, what I call getting over yourself.

You emphasize Jewish spirituality in your book, but not religion. Why is that?

Rabbi Shais Taub: I wrote the book for two audiences: the first is Jews who aren’t in recovery but should be and for them, I wanted to dispel the notion that there was anything theologically problematic about being in recovery. The second is non-Jews who are spiritual seekers based on their engagement in recovery and might find this method of spirituality useful. The purpose of the book wasn’t to teach Judaism. It was to connect with people where they are.

You claim that addicts are attempting to fill a spiritual void, but there are a lot of reasons why people turn to drugs.

Rabbi Shais Taub: There are people who turn to drugs and alcohol recreationally, but they started when it was fun and stopped when it wasn’t. I don’t consider it an addiction when someone has stopped through therapy or community or sheer willpower. By my definition, an addict is someone who’s using self-medication to fill an existential need. The problem comes from underlying existential conditions.

You also talk about the powerlessness of people to help addicts. A lot of recovery outlets emphasize the need for family or community support, so why does none of this matter without spiritual help?

Rabbi Shais Taub: A real addiction is a power greater than any human power. Real addiction comes from a desire to fill a need: that person is using self-medication for a deep existential issue. I’ve never seen a human power, no matter how much you multiply it, that’s able to overcome that. And the tragedy is that people blame themselves for the addiction of others. They say, “If I were better, smarter, got more people involved, this wouldn’t have happened.” But that’s a quest to exert God-like control. Ultimately the addict has to do the work: it has to come from them. 

Even though you’re anchored within the Chasidic world and have said you don’t have an interest in finding common theological ground, you’ve found a wide audience in Christians and other religious groups. Why do you think that is?

Rabbi Shais Taub: I think the reason I have had so much success speaking to people of all faiths, or of no faith, is that I have no agenda other than to be helpful. The Jewish people are supposed to be "a light unto the nations," which means we have a duty to share information. We do not need non-Jews to become Jewish. A non-Jew doesn't need to change their spiritual identity to being Jewish in order to have a relationship with God. And I’m not out to convince anybody that my beliefs are true. All I do is share what I know and hope it resonates with people. The cool thing is that it often does.

The fear among some might be that based on your analysis of ancient texts, or perhaps even the style of dress in the Hasidic community, is that this approach itself might be old-fashioned or outdated. How do you address that concern?

Rabbi Shais Taub: Anybody who has the concern that what I’m saying is archaic or out of touch hasn’t actually read what I’ve said. It’s a knee-jerk reaction based on their preconceived notions. I challenge anyone to get to know me, either personally or through my lectures, and still say that what I teach isn’t relatable.

How can someone in recovery know that they are on the right spiritual path? 

Rabbi Shais Taub: Addicts have the existential pain many of us do, but they feel it more acutely. Normal people have the luxury of being able to live in a state of spiritual laxity and get away with it. They can get through life not taking care of their spiritual fitness, or go years without prayer or meditation and remain relatively unharmed. It’s easy for someone in recovery to know they are on the right spiritual path because they can see the results of their behavior really quickly. Recovering addicts are the most spiritually fit people, but if they spend a week or a month not seeking conscious contact, others will notice the differences in their behavior. Look at an athlete. If you’re in great shape physically, you’ll notice major changes after sitting on the couch for a month. If you’ve spent 30 years on the couch, an extra month won’t do anything. 

The only way you’re never going to use again is if you find the relief you got from using. Spiritual awakening is that relief. If I’m in recovery for a year and still crazy and still want to commit suicide, I would question whether the steps are being used effectively. Then you see a person who’s gaining the freedom from self-obsession. It’s easy to notice. When religious people make claims about the veracity of their dogma, it’s impossible to verify. When I die, I’ll go to heaven? Sure, call me when you get to heaven and let me know. But the spirituality of recovery is easy to verify. You simply can’t fake it.

McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New YorkThe Huffington Post, and, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.