Addiction and Repentance

“Each year for the twenty-two years that I was Chief Rabbi, I was given the privilege by the BBC of making a television programme to be broadcast around the time of the Jewish New Year. The idea of the programme was to deliver as far as possible a universal message— obviously so, since the Jewish community in Britain is so small, and in any case a large section of the British public is not religious at all. This presented a challenge each year. How do you translate religious concepts into a language and sensibility that is deeply secular? In particular, one year I wanted to explain to viewers the important but difficult ideas of repentance and behavioural change that are at the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic. How could you do so without religious terminology or iconography?”

“In the end, I realised that the best way of doing so was through the idea of addiction. We know how much harm we do to ourselves when we become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other such activity like gambling. But it is extremely difficult to wean ourselves away from such habits, however self-destructive they are. What has to happen is something very like repentance. First, you have to realise you are doing something wrong. Second, you have to make something like a public admission of this. Third, you have to commit to behavioural change, however hard that may be. Weaning yourself off addictive drugs was the nearest I could come to weaning yourself from bad habits and wrong deeds. So I spent a day with a group of eighteen-year-old heroin addicts. It was a wrenching experience. Most of them came from broken and abusive homes. They had not had a fair chance in life, and my heart went out to all of them. If I had been in their situation, I am not sure I would have had the strength to avoid falling into some kind of drug- or alcohol-induced oblivion.”

“The director of the centre was an amazing young woman who seemed to be able to inspire behavioural change in these wounded but lovely individuals. I asked her, simply, “What is it that you give them that gives them the strength to change?” I will never forget her reply. “We are the first people they have met who give them unconditional love,” she began. That was something I expected: that is what faith is about, religious or otherwise. It was her next statement that shook me. “We are the first people they have met who care enough about them to say, ‘No.’” A shiver went down my spine. Sometimes the fate of a life depends on the ability to say and hear the word ‘No’.”

Morality, pp. 156-157