Tuesday, March 06, 2001

A Sin By Dereliction

A Sin By Dereliction
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD
JACS - March 6, 2001

Dr. Twerski, a leading authority on substance abuse in the Jewish community, is affiliated with the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, PA.

In the viduy we confess, "We have sinned, we have deceived, we have stolen, etc." Inasmuch as we are frail and fallible humans, we may be unable to withstand temptations and we, therefore, may commit transgressions. Whereas I can understand the vulnerability to sin when there is personal gain, I am unable to understand why we confess "Yoatznu ra (we have given bad counsel)". What personal gain could there possibly be from giving someone bad advice? Why would anyone commit this sin?

I have come to the conclusion that "giving bad counsel" is not an intentional sin, but one which we commit unknowingly. I.e., we think we are giving the person good advice, but in reality the advice is bad, and since this can result in harm to the person, we are culpable for having caused an individual harm even though our intentions were good.

However, the Talmud states that an unintentional sin committed by a scholar is equivalent to an intentional sin, because the scholar, in possession of knowledge, should have known better. In his case, ignorance is not a defense.

Lay people are not necessarily scholars, nor is their counsel frequently sought. Rabbis, on the other hand, are learned and are considered authorities who can provide proper counsel. If they fail to do so because of lack of adequate knowledge, even though their intentions were good, they are held responsible as though it were an intentional transgression. I, therefore, suspect that "Yoatznu ra" is a confession intended for rabbis.

I have had considerable experience with cases brought before rabbis for advice and guidance, where, due to inadequate knowledge, rabbis have given advice which has turned out to be extremely harmful. Namely, there are many problems in the Jewish community of which rabbis may be unaware, such as addictive gambling, alcoholism and/or drug addiction, spouse abuse, child abuse, and other social ills, which, for some reason there is a misconception that these do not occur among Jews, and certainly not among observant Jews.

Couples have come to the rabbi with marital problems, and no inquiry is made as to whether there is a problem of alcohol or substance abuse. Both men and women are susceptible to alcoholism, and there is fairly widespread abuse of prescription drugs, which can be every bit as devastating as heroin and cocaine. Incidentally, even the latter occur among some of the finest families. There are families who are in financial straits, and it does not occur to the rabbi to inquire about the possibility of addictive gambling. Spouses and children may be victims of both physical and emotional abuse, and this may go unsuspected. One battered wife complained, "Our rabbi would never believe if I told him about my husband's behavior at home. On the outside he is an absolute tzaddik, and if I told the rabbi about how he mistreats me, the rabbi would think I am fabricating and consider me meschuge." A number of rabbis who have consulted me about problems of their congregants who were alcoholic, whose problems became so manifest that denial was no longer feasible, have become interested in some of these problems, and have said to me, "I am shocked at how ignorant I was about these conditions."

I recall very well that when I received my semicha, I was quite well versed in halacha, and could render reasonable decisions on problems of ritual. However, nowhere in my education was I exposed to the various problems that I have enumerated. Ironically, even in psychiatric training these were not taught, and unfortunately some psychotherapists who are otherwise quite competent fall into the same trap of not recognizing these conditions, and treating their patients for those diagnoses with which they are familiar but which may be incorrect.

While I do not wish to be an alarmist, let me point out that while making an error in most questions of halacha is a serious matter it pales before errors in dinei nefashos. Lives that are lost and families that are decimated by addictive conditions or abusive behavior fall into the category of "defects that are irreversible." As rabbis, we should make every effort to see that when we beat our heart for "Yoatznura", that it not be a true confession.

No comments: