Free Will is Not an Answer to Addiction

Prescription medication spills out onto the floor. Are addicts who abuse this medication acting out of their free will?

The Book of Proverbs (Mishlei) teaches that a thriving life is one that is guided by the Torah. As our past leaders stridently argued, the decision for living through the Torah is based on free will. Otherwise, how could God hold anybody to standards of reward and punishment for their actions?



Does Acting Out of Addiction Constitute Acting Out of Free Will?

As the Rambam argues in his book of Judaic laws Mishne Torah, a healthy individual can override the Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) by consciously mobilizing his drives into Torah consistent actions. Indeed, Teshuva (repentance) is a self-initiated, long-term adjustment of one’s character traits by repeatedly performing intentionally-driven, pious behaviors, rather than improper ones. The Rambam seemingly believes that free will should be used to conquer the Yetzer Harah.


Seemingly consistent with the Rambam, many in the Orthodox Jewish Community assume that addicts are willful transgressors of the Torah. They deem them worthy of communal censure or abandonment. But is this approach the true proper Jewish response?



Addiction Recovery is Not Parallel to Yetzer Harah Teshuva

When considering modern psychiatry, it seems that equating beating addiction to using free will to conquer the Yetzer Harah is at variance with Torah values. Modern psychiatry classifies addiction as a physical disease, often fed by acute anxiety disorders. It interferes with human learning, decision making and executive functions. These can include impulse control, planning, prioritizing, and task initiation. Essentially, addiction robs the individual of the physical wherewithal needed to combat the Yetzer Harah or to sustain Teshuva.


Most are in agreement that addiction is treatable. Achieving real and sustained recovery necessitates the full support of family and the community. The addict clearly falls under the edict of “Rapo Yerapeh” (healing of the sick), requiring access to the most effective possible treatment. Simply admonishing an addict for not channeling his inner free will is not consistent with Jewish law.



Believe in Possibility


If you or a family member are struggling with addiction, or if you are a professional who counsels people facing addiction, know that Retorno can help. At Retorno, we help family and community empower an addict to persist in rehab and realize the possibilities that true free will, unencumbered by physical addiction, makes possible.



Does the author’s view of addiction align with your view? Please join the conversation below.

Rabbi Eitan Eckstein and Shoshana Schwartz

Rabbi Eitan Eckstein and Shoshana Schwartz

Rabbi Eckstein, trained as a social worker and as a community rabbi, is the CEO of Retorno. Shoshana Schwartz is a therapeutic horseback riding instructor and addictions counselor at Retorno.
Rabbi Eitan Eckstein and Shoshana Schwartz

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