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Rabbi Mark Borovitz on Authenticity, Celebrity, and Fairness in Recovery
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Officially ordained in 2000 at the University of Judaism with a Master's in Rabbinic Literature, Rabbi Mark Borovitz has come a long way from his alcoholic life as a criminal conman. As the Senior Rabbi at the Los Angeles rehab, Beit T’Shuvah (translated from the Hebrew as “The House of Return”), Rabbi Mark combines his knowledge of the Torah with his street smarts to help recovering addicts. His life changed when Harriet Rossetto came to visit him and other Jewish inmates in prison, offering a new way of life. After being released in 1988, he went to work for Harriet at Beit T'Shuvah, a nonprofit and non-sectarian Jewish addiction treatment center that she had founded. Later, after falling in love and getting married, they evolved the rehab together into a synagogue community that offers a revolutionary approach to addiction treatment and criminal rehabilitation.
In his biography, The Holy Thief: A Conman's Journey from Darkness to Light, Rabbi Mark told the story of his journey from hopelessness to redemption. In the recently published Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah: A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness, he combines his knowledge of Judaism and his experience in the field of recovery to reveal the spiritual guidance to be found in the Five Books of Moses.
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(Interviewer John Lavitt got sober at Beit T’Shuvah, and lived at the rehab for ten months from 2003 to 2004. He has known Rabbi Mark for well over a decade.)
In your latest book, Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah: A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness, you offer readers a highly unique treatment program that utilizes Judaism as a path to long-term recovery. About this new work, you have said, “The underlying message is we have to recover the questions.” Can you tell us about how this program works? What questions do we need to recover?
That’s a great question, John. Here’s the thing: My descent into alcoholism and my life of crime were both answers to the wrong question. The question I asked myself was, how do I get out of this feeling of not being enough, how do I get out of the inner chaos that’s going on within me, the war that was happening in my psyche between my soul and my emotions? When I asked that question, drinking as an escape made sense. When I asked the question, how do I deal with life, how do I deal with my own inner turmoil, then escape doesn’t make any sense because I can’t escape it. There’s no way to escape from our own reality. I know that to be true.
Jewish wisdom says that every experience is the answer, but we have to seek and search out the right question. The ultimate question is, what is the question that my life is the answer for? How am I going to live life in a way that responds to the call of my soul, the call of God, and the divine need that I represent? That’s true of every human individual. Religion, faith, spirituality are designed to help us recover the questions, and this comes directly from Rabbi Heschel. (Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologian philosophers of the 20th century.) The problem is that we are asking the wrong questions, and this prevents us from moving forward.
Beit T’Shuvah is translated as the "House of Return." You have said, “Teshuvah in that sense is returning health that’s been lost.” How can alcoholics and addicts return to health beyond not drinking and using? Can you connect this “return” to the concept of the authentic self that you often talk about with residents?
Teshuvah is a process where I do an accounting of my soul. When doing that, I have to look at what I’ve done well and what I haven’t done well. I have to see my assets and my liabilities. I have to look at the strengths that I have as well as my weaknesses. I have to look at the paths that I have followed that have brought goodness into the world and into my life, and the paths that I have followed where I have created chaos. By doing this process, I can return to the path of goodness and wholeness. By doing this, I can return to a life of healthy living—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. When I do that, I return to my original authenticity that I was born with. We don’t come in here as alcoholics or drug addicts. I don’t believe that to be the case.
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Now I do understand that for me, when I took a drink, I felt, “Okay, I can live.” That desire and that pull were very strong. What I have shown in the last twenty-seven and a half years to myself was that I don’t need it to be me. In fact, what started out as a solution became another problem. The whole thing is that returning to my authenticity, healing the wounds and the traumas that I’ve experienced in life, and finding a new way or an old way to live that is congruent with my authenticity as a spiritual being. Dr. Lisa Miller wrote a book called The Spiritual Child about how each of us is born with a spiritual component.
I now have to raise that spiritual child into a spiritual adult. I have to raise the emotional child into an emotional adult. I have to raise my logic and my reasoning beyond what is this world, by understanding that there is mystery, there is magic, there is magnificence beyond those logical boundaries and rational limitations. There is something beyond me and beyond what I know. When I do that, I can hear the guidance of other people, I can immerse myself in the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and other wisdom traditions, and I can be at one with God, with myself and with other people. This allows me to live a life of connection and a life of elevation. I can live as a decent, worthy, dignified human spirit.
When you were interviewed by LA Weekly, you said, "I always believed in God, I was never agnostic. I didn't pay much attention to him, but I've always believed in God. What I learned is that God believes in me, too."
Is this a common problem for addicts and alcoholics? In order for you to trust that God believes in you, do you need to first believe in yourself?
John, I want you to know that that’s a very nuanced question. The only way I can really answer it is by saying that it’s both. It reminds me of the footprints prayer. Two sets of footprints walking in the sand of your life because God is always by your side. But there’s only one set of footprints during the most difficult times of your life so you ask, “God, where were you then? When I most needed you?” God says, “Who do you think was carrying you?”
In recovery, the first thing that happened to me was I realized that God was trying to tell me something. Rabbi Heschel wrote a book, God In Search Of Man, about how God’s been calling to us all the time. This is called Ayeka, the Hebrew term that translates as, “Where are you?” When I was in prison, I really started to immerse myself in the Hebrew bible. I read the third chapter of Genesis, where God calls out Ayeka in the Garden of Eden because Adam and Eve are hiding. Adam has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and feels guilty. It is when God looks for man, and I started to cry because I recognized myself. I was sitting in a cell and weeping because I realized that God called to me so often. There were so many times that God was calling, and I was hiding. I knew this deep within me. I also knew that God still believed that I could do something different, that I could do Teshuvah—that I could turn it around and return to a path of decency. I believed that I could have a new response to old situations and that overwhelmed me.
What Jesus says on the cross has been translated into English as, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But this is very different from what it says when you look at the actual Hebrew words. The Hebrew actually translates as, “You never forsake me. You never do that. You never cast me away.” This is the vision of God that I came upon in that moment, and it washed over me like a wave: It’s not God that doesn’t believe in me; it’s me that doesn’t believe in me. It’s me that doesn’t believe in God. It’s me that doesn’t hear the call of God. God has always believed in me.
When you look at the holiness code, part of it says that you shall surely rebuke your neighbor. This doesn’t mean that you act like an asshole. Rather, see this as an expression of great love. I love you so much that I’m willing to say to you: “John, you don’t have to be an addict or an alcoholic anymore. You don’t have to live like this. You are better than that. You can do better. You are not stuck or trapped. There is hope because I believe in you.” That’s the greatest love that there is.
You have said, “I hustle for God. I do whatever it takes to help people come back to life." Today, as the Holy Thief, are you a conman for the good? How do the street smarts you developed in the past help you to accomplish your job today?
You really had to ask me this? (both laughing) I wouldn’t say a conman, but I would say that I manipulate. I am selling you and everybody else on the idea that we can live well. If we take care of the stranger, widow, the poor, and the orphan inside of us and outside of us, we can develop a connected world—not a connected world through technology like Facebook and Twitter, but a connected world soul to soul. Once we are connected, we can see everybody’s humanity and their divinity as well. We can see that everybody is a reminder of God and everybody, as Rabbi Heschel teaches, is a divine need. If we do this, then all of a sudden, all of the competition and comparing lessens. There’s no more fighting to be number one because we all take our proper place. It’s a really difficult concept; most people shy away from it.
When I use the word "manipulation," people think it’s not right or not good. When a chiropractor, however, helps us, he manipulates our body to restore us to health. Sometimes we need to manipulate and we need to be manipulated in order to find the right path. Many of us, whether we are addicts or not, we think we know everything and we think we are the smartest person in the room. You have to speak to people in a way they can hear. Sometimes it looks like manipulation or selling or hustling, but if it helps another person live well, I don’t care what anybody calls it.
At Beit T’Shuvah, the Passover story is connected to the journey of a person in early recovery. Despite being freed from slavery by Moses, the people of Israel grumble on and on in the wilderness, complaining about the Manna from Heaven, and then eventually building the Golden Calf. Like newly sober clients, the Israelite people ignore miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, focusing instead on their own narcissistic concerns. Can you illuminate this comparison?
Man, you really listen. I got to be careful. (Laughing) Here’s the thing that needs to be understood: The Israelite people did not ignore the miracles. They were astonished in the moment. The problem with miracles is that once it’s done, we forget about them. As you well know, the miracle of sobriety can be lost even if they seemed to be a 30, 60 or 90-day wonder. If they are not doing the work, if they are not having a response to the ongoing miracle, it will be lost.
My life is a miracle. To honor that gift, I have to keep doing the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual work to keep myself connected and the miracle alive. When my perspective towards the miracle is that God struck me sober so I don’t have to do anything, I am not honoring the message and the gift that I have been given, but that I also achieved as well through doing the work. That’s what happens to a lot of newly sober addicts and even people who relapse after a few years. Like you, I have seen it happen time and time again. These people forget that they have to constantly honor their sobriety by continuing to grow as a way of keeping the miracle alive. How many times have we seen people with such promise—these bright, shining lights—and they end up buying their own press? At Beit T’Shuvah, we help people continue to grow along spiritual lines, emotional lines, and even lines of reason and logic as well.
Most newly sober people in their heads think like this: “I may not be much, but I’m all that I think about.” We try to get them to think about themselves in a different way, and to think about the community and being part of a community. We try to convey the message that we need you to be better so we can be better as well. When you look at the structure of Beit T’Shuvah and of Torah Study, when you look at the structure of 12-Step meetings and all of the other spiritual disciplines, even the masters have to keep growing. The process never ends. We all need to constantly feed our souls so the miracle stays present. We have to do the work.
Today, with the opioid epidemic raging across the country, the subject of addiction and recovery has become a central political issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Is this an example of too little, too late? Why is the problem being focused on today as opposed to in the past?
First of all, addiction is not what’s being focused on. The opioid epidemic is what’s being focused on. They are not focusing on recovery. They are focusing on harm reduction by highlighting Suboxone and the rest. They are not talking about recovery in the sense that you and I understand recovery. Recovery is where I’m living life on life’s terms without needing to be loaded in any way. I have seen people on the SAMHSA-recommended dosage of Suboxone. It’s true that they’re no longer using heroin and they are still alive. I believe by putting them on Suboxone maintenance, you are keeping them loaded just like methadone keeps them loaded.
Also, why is everything about the opioids? You don’t hear them talking about meth, you don’t hear them talking about crack, you don’t hear them talking about booze. Why is it being so focused on today? Unfortunately, I believe, and this is just my opinion, it is racism. It wasn’t focused on before because rich white kids weren’t dying. As a result, nobody was really talking about it. Now it’s happening in such numbers, everybody is forced to talk about it. It’s true that they are now going into the poor areas with Suboxone, but that is for the press. If it was only low-life, skid row people and people of color dying, it wouldn’t be happening. When it was just those people dying, nobody cared.
There is a solution. It’s called recovery. It’s called finding one’s place in the world. It is called learning how to wrestle with life on life’s terms. It’s called Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12-Step programs. It’s called Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, Judaism and all the other spiritual traditions. It’s called ways to live as decent and whole human beings in community. But there needs to be a greater focus on abstinence. Unfortunately, the government is not really putting any money into promoting abstinence and that is the path of true recovery.
You have done a lot of work in the field of criminal rehabilitation, including an effort to have "convicted felon" removed from job applications. Can you discuss this passion from both the microcosmic perspective of your own experience and the macrocosmic experience of society as a whole?
I’ve been doing work in the field of criminal rehabilitation ever since I began my own criminal rehabilitation. Recently, I have been quite active in the Ban the Box movement to remove the box on job applications that asks whether or not you have been convicted of a crime. If somebody’s done their time, then they’ve paid their debt to society. As soon as an employer sees convicted felon, they automatically put that application at the bottom of the barrel.
The problem here, John, is the same problem: It’s just another way to dehumanize somebody. If I can call you convicted felon, then I don’t have to deal with you because I look down on you. I can dismiss you, but it’s a human being. It’s entirely possible that person has more talent, more passion and more trustworthiness than any other candidate. You won’t know that if you just look at that checked box.
As a result, society is losing out on really talented people. Society is keeping people on the margins or outside the margins. It’s the same thing as immigration, it’s the same thing as racism, and it’s the same thing as anti-Semitism. It’s the same thing as all of the anti’s so we can turn someone into the other, instead of seeing another human being. That’s why we need to get this box off the job applications.
You have said, “Community is what heals… Judaism can only be practiced in connection with others.” You went on to describe Beit T’Shuvah as a rehab, saying, “Most places want to fit you into a box, but we build the box around you.”
Can you explain what building the box around you means? Can you tell us about the community that you and Harriet have built through Beit T’Shuvah?
As soon as I ask you to fit in, I am asking you not to be you. When I welcome you as you are, John, you belong. Let’s figure out where we have to build the fences for your spirit, for your path, for your spiritual and emotional health, and even for your logical reasoning. Yes, we might have to build a fence to protect you, but it’s the same fence for you as it is for me. It’s a specific boundary that works for you and helps you to grow as a human being. The community is better because John Lavitt is in it. I am going to help John Lavitt find his path. I am going to help him be a writer, but I am not going to recommend that he go down to a bunch of crack houses and write that story. When you were three months sober, being in a crack house was not a good idea. It’s probably not a good place to ever be. That would have been a very bad neighborhood for you. That’s an example of how we build the box around you. We need to protect you from a tailspin when you are with us. We put up a fence so you don’t make choices early on that can hurt you. We do it as best we can.
But we don’t know the real dangers for you until we have the opportunity to work with you. We are here to help you find your boundaries because addicts in early recovery come in here with a trail of wreckage behind them. They have no boundaries, and it’s our responsibility to help them come back from what the 12-step programs call a seemingly hopeless condition of mind, body and soul. We know that there is always hope because God is always there. In the beginning, we don’t know you so we have to work together. Once we get a sense of your soul and once you start listening to your soul, all of a sudden, everything falls into place. You are a great example of that happening when I consider where you were and where you are today, John.
The community that we have built is a community of people that have always felt like they didn’t fit in, but today they know they belong. It’s a community of people that care about one another. When it comes to our Temple community and our donors, it’s a community that raises over five million dollars a year so that if somebody can’t afford treatment, we can help them. We don’t get county money and we don’t have county beds. No, instead, we have built a community of people who want to take care of the stranger, widow, the poor, and the orphan. Together, we all know that it’s an obligation and an honor to belong to a community that loves and cares.
When I was at Beit T’Shuvah, two ideas you highlighted were the "Both/And" and "Living in Proper Measure." Can you illuminate these two ideas and how they relate to recovery and emotional sobriety?
I’m still learning. Okay, Both/And can be described by doing a rough translation of a Hebrew saying where the divine inclination is good, the earthly inclination, sometimes called evil, is very good because the earthly inclination helps us move forward. Without the earthly inclination, we wouldn’t find cures for cancer, we wouldn’t build buildings, and we wouldn’t make progress. There’s a story in the Talmud where they took the so-called evil inclination and put it in a box. Suddenly, there were no marriages, nobody was having sex, and nobody was even working because they all felt like they were in a state of nirvana. That’s great, except we are part of this world and we have to keep working on making it a better place. We are both divine and we are earthly as well. This is true and that’s true; it’s not either/or, and you are not either good or bad. We are good and bad. We are brilliant and we’re stupid. We’re holy and we do unholy things. It doesn’t work when you try to tease out this either/or living.
A perfect example is when you look at the idea of success. Look, I’m not a wealthy man. I’m not broke either, but I don’t measure my success by how much money I make. I have very wealthy friends. In the old days, I would have been jealous of them. Today, I am thrilled by their success, and I am so happy when they do well because I know it makes them happy. Not because I’m going to get anything, but just because I care for them and that’s why their success makes me happy. When my daughter calls me and tells me about something good that’s happened, I’m delighted for her. Both/And gives you the freedom not to have to say, “Why not me?”
Living in proper measure is much more difficult because it means I have to see each situation for what it is in this moment in real time. I can’t apply a set formula that I think I can apply to every situation. In talking to you and answering these questions, John, I have to be present and I have to find the right balance. What’s the appropriate amount of energy? What’s the appropriate amount of answer? How long should I go? I need proper measure so I can put together all of my traits in proper measure. I can’t let myself go off, ignoring that balance, and get wild or crazy like I would do in the past. Mind you, there’s times when wild and crazy is good, and that’s the proper measure.
For me, the proper measure of alcohol is none. It’s dangerous. For my wife, Harriet, she has a glass of wine sometimes with dinner when we’re out with friends, and that’s the proper measure for her. For each one of us, we have to learn to what proper measure means in the context of our own lives.
In the "Knock Out Addiction" event in 2010, Rabbi Mark “The Holy Thief” Borovitz boxed actor Tom “The Hebrew Hammer” Arnold to raise funds for Beit T’Shuvah. Does the fun and pop culture glamor of celebrity make the horrors of the disease of addiction easier to digest for potential donors? Does celebrity participation help raise awareness?
I don’t think the pop culture glamor of addiction makes the horrors of the disease of addiction easier to digest for anyone. If anything, it makes it more confusing. When it comes to celebrities suffering from the disease of addiction, people say, “Look, they had everything. Why did they throw their lives away?” At the same time, I absolutely believe that it can help raise awareness. People like Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Arnold have done so much to raise the awareness in the public eye. If somebody like that can fall victim to this disease and come back, then maybe my son, my daughter, my mother, my cousin, my friend, my co-worker, and on and on, can come back as well. Maybe it’s not about just willpower. Maybe helping them get the help they need is what’s really important.
When I was at Beit T’Shuvah, residents would often complain to you, protesting that this or that wasn’t fair because so-and-so was being given more freedom or a better house job. You would reply, “Fair, huh? There’s no Fair here. Nope, the Fair’s in Pomona.” Of course, you were jokingly referring to the LA County Fair that’s based in Pomona every year. Can you explain what you mean when you express this idea to the residents? Why isn’t rehab, or life itself for that matter, fair?
It’s all wrapped up in the way people use the word "fair"—if this person gets it, then I should get it as well. One time, a resident complained to me on and on about not getting what another guy was getting. I said, “Okay, you want everything this person gets? Okay, you got it.” The guy went out on a pass, the second guy went out on a pass, and so forth and so on. Well, the first guy ended up using dope, and we had to discharge him. I called the second guy into my office and told him that we had to discharge him as well. He said, “Why? I didn’t use. You can test me.” I said, “That’s not necessary. You said that whatever the first guy got, you wanted as well. It wasn’t fair unless everything that happened to him happened to you. Well, he got thrown out so you now have to be thrown out as well. I am honoring your request.”
You should have seen what happened: The guy turned white. His mouth dropped open and he started sputtering. He ran out of my office and threw himself onto the mercy of Harriet. With a straight face, she said, “Let me talk to the Rabbi and see what we can do. I’ll go talk to him with the staff.” She got everybody together, they came into my office and closed the door, and everybody burst out laughing. They all thought it was so brilliant. They called him in and Harriet asked if he was going to complain about what was fair anymore. The guy said, “No, I don’t want fair. I get it. I only want what’s best for me.” Everybody looked at me gravely and I said, “Okay, fine, we can keep him around for now.”
Whenever people use the word "fair" in a rehab, it’s always as a victim and tied to complaining. There are lots of things in life that can be viewed as not being fair. It’s not fair that my father died when I was fourteen years old, but it happened. As long as I used that as an excuse to remain a victim, I kept victimizing others. I had to learn to have an honest response to life, rather than reacting from a "poor me" place. When that happens, your whole life changes, and so does the life of everybody around me because I’m not dragging them into my victimhood. Once I accept life on life’s term, I can live as the person I was put here on this earth to be, and I have found that to be a wonderful way to live.