By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (02/01/2013)

It might seem like a disconnect: a Chasidic rabbi writing about Amy Winehouse.

Yet Rabbi Shais Taub’s Huffington Post column on the death of the Jewish pop singer at the age of 27 from an alcohol overdose drew thousands of letters, many from parents who had lost children themselves to addictions.

Taub, 38, an unlikely addiction expert who never set out to be one, is getting used to reaching a wide audience. His 2010 book, “G‑d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction,” was the number one Jewish best-seller on Amazon and has gone into close to a dozen printings. He has been interviewed on NPR and CBS, was the subject of a New York Times article last year and is a sought-after speaker – by both Jewish and non-Jewish groups, crossing the country to discuss addiction and what he calls “emotional sobriety.”

That was the title of a lecture he gave here last week sponsored by Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook. The next day he spoke at Northwestern University’s Tannenbaum Chabad House and discussed mental health issues on campus with students.

It’s a role that Taub admits he fortuitously fell into.

His only degree, he said in a recent telephone interview, is his rabbinical ordination, and he considers himself first of all a scholar of Jewish mystical texts. A course he created on the subject, “Soul Map,” is the most popular offering of the nationwide Jewish Learning Institute.

“That’s where my training is, my passion, in studying mystical texts, Kabbalah, and explaining those in modern English,” he says. Then he found, surprisingly, that these skills “somehow translated very well to speaking about addiction issues.”

Born in Chicago and raised in a traditionally observant family, Taub received his ordination from Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brooklyn, N.Y. While serving as a Chabad rabbi in Milwaukee in 2006, one of his duties included leading a weekly group for Jewish men in recovery from addiction. He discovered that many of the men had become observant during the process, and he began to wonder about the connection between recovery and spirituality.

For the next few years he researched addiction treatment and discovered that his original hunch was correct.

“Addiction is one problem in life where in the clinical world there is almost a consensus that spirituality is of clinical importance. It is therapeutically recognized as effective,” he says.

His conviction was strengthened when he discovered a letter from Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, to a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in which Jung theorized that “spirituality is the antidote to all types of addictions,” Taub says. “He treated a patient who was a friend of (Bill W.), the founder of AA, and AA’s 12 steps are based on Jung’s theories.”

Jung wrote of “spiritus contra spiritum,” spiritus meaning both “alcohol” and “spirituality” in Latin, Taub explains. The formula would translate to something like “spirituality against (alcoholic) spirits,” he says.

As Taub delved more deeply into the subject, he came to believe that “the high (that addicts get) is a manifestation of a deeper yearning for spiritual oneness.” That put him at odds with some members of the addiction recovery community, including a movement he calls rational recovery. In it, “clinicians look at it from a purely chemical, neurological point of view,” he says.

For others in that world, “a huge amount of credence is given to the importance of spirituality,” with belief in a “higher power” (which need not be the conventional view of G‑d) built into every 12-step program.

Taub, who today lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and children, soon found that his study of Jewish mysticism dovetailed with his interest in addiction and recovery.

“Chasidism is basically taking the teachings of Kabbalah and applying them to emotional and behavioral life,” he says. “My training as a Chasidic scholar already got me into the mode of taking the highest of high spiritual ideas and asking, how does that translate into cognitive, emotional and behavioral terms?”

He also had a role model: Rabbi Abraham Twerski, not only a Chasidic rabbi but also a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and substance abuse and is probably the best-known Jewish expert in the field.

Twerski, as it happens, was born in Milwaukee and moved to Pittsburgh, where he founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center and served as medical director until his retirement. He, too, recognized the role of spirituality in recovery and once wrote that recovering alcoholics exhibit a sense of responsibility to their fellow alcoholics and to G‑d that is often absent from synagogues.

Taub says he told Twerski, whom he considers a mentor, “I’m not consciously trying to imitate your life,” he says with a laugh. Now he sometimes consults with the families of clients at Gateway. Most are not Jewish.

Twerski, for his part, “is a big supporter of my book,” Taub says. “He gives out my book. That is the greatest honor. He is the pioneer of the field.”

Taub’s interest in the intersection between spirituality and recovery deepened as he worked with a group of recovering alcoholics and substance abusers, all Jews but from non-religious or non-affiliated backgrounds.

“They had all become sober through a 12-step program and were very spiritual people, but their spirituality was not connected to their Judaism,” he says. “We formed a group, and they wanted to hear more about spirituality. They already had that, but they didn’t have the connection to their Jewish roots. When you have Jewish people who want spirituality and to not offer that to them in the context of their tradition is really sad.”

As he gained a reputation for working with recovering addicts, he was interviewed by an NPR reporter in 2009. “He said, what are you going to do to spread the message?” Taub reports. “I said, I’m writing a book,” an enterprise he hadn’t really thought of previously. “Then I had to write the book,” he says.

“G‑d of Our Understanding” is the result. Its ideas are rooted in Jewish tradition, but it also struck a responsive chord in the secular world, and Taub soon began receiving speaking engagements from both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. His talk to staff members at Boys Town in Nebraska became the subject of an article by New York Times writer Samuel G. Freedman.

With Jewish audiences, Taub works hard to make his listeners understand that, contrary to popular belief, 12-step programs can apply to them as well.

“In 12-step programs, there is not a Christian orientation,” he says. “Twerski was the pioneer in that. He fought so hard to explain that the 12 steps are good for the Jews. He forged that path. He really was the one who made it clear that the 12 steps are kosher.”

Still, he says, a misperception exists in the Jewish world that “the 12 steps are Christian. In the book I was able to say, in effect, trust me, it’s not. I went point by point through the steps.”

His article about Amy Winehouse, written shortly after her 2011 death, he says, encapsulates his ideas about addiction and gives “a taste of my spiritual teaching and style, taking ideas and bringing them into the language of today’s culture. You can’t be stodgy, you have to talk the language of the people.”

In that article, headlined “Was the world powerless to stop Amy Winehouse?” he talks about feeling “angry and sick” when he heard about her death: “A 27-year-old girl just died of addiction in front of the whole world. Millions of people saw this happening. And nobody could stop it. The world couldn’t stop it! For me, the futility of human power has just taken on a completely new dimension.”

Still, he writes, “the only ‘news’ to me about Amy’s death is the date. After all, what really could have stopped this from happening? The only time I have ever seen recovery in a case like Amy’s is by an act of G‑d.”

“One of the axioms of recovery is that the addict is beyond human aid and that’s why addicts need a ‘higher power’ to live,” he writes. “You can call that hocus-pocus. I call it an everyday reality.”

People who “get in trouble with drugs” but are not addicts might be “scared straight” through human intervention, but, he writes, “addicts, real addicts, don’t get scared away from addiction too long. Barring miracles, real addicts play for keeps.” Those miracles, he believes, only come from that “higher power.”

Otherwise, “no other power in the universe can stop this terminal disease from running its course.”

He concludes the article, which he says sums up his knowledge and beliefs about addiction, with a message to the families of addicts and to addicts themselves: Don’t blame yourself for not trying hard enough. “You could multiply your efforts and your willpower by literally a million times, you could have the whole world on your side, and still face the same heartbreaking outcome in the end. But there is hope. Let Amy’s example not be in vain. There is a Power greater than all of us. May all those who seek in truth find that Power now.”

More recently, Taub has broadened his reach, using his ideas about addiction to speak to non-addicts about how to live healthier, more fulfilled lives. He calls this “emotional sobriety,” the title of his recent lecture in Northbrook.

He has given a similar lecture hundreds of times, from Toronto to Texas.

“Basically, after I was received so well in my teachings about addiction and recovery, I started explaining that when a person is an addict they hit rock bottom, they pursue a spiritual path, they recover. That is awesome. (Before this happens) you find the spiritual disconnect. The Jungian idea is to find a vital spiritual experience and all of a sudden you have a blissful life.”

He started realizing that that holds true for many other people who are not addicts.

“It’s not just people who can point to a chemical or compulsive behavior and say ‘I’m an addict’ who can turn around their lives,” he says. “How about people who don’t have an addiction? How do they share the wealth” spiritually speaking?

That’s when he realized “addiction, anyway, was never really about the addiction. Alcohol, drugs, that was just self-medication, the most external layer. It was really about the underlying need for a spiritual reawakening.”

Considering that, “we can teach the same tools to everyone,” he says. “I started taking the tools of recovery, the spiritual tools, and teaching them to everybody. I call it emotional sobriety.”

He defines that as “letting go of unhealthy relationships and attachments using spiritual tools” and learning how to know which circumstances require action and which are beyond our control.

“When we talk about sobriety and recovery, what we really mean is finding a more effective way to live by letting go of things we can’t control,” he says. “You may find yourself caught in cycles of behavior, patterns of thought, or you keep getting stuck in dysfunctional relationships, repeating the same kinds of relationships. That is worthy of getting extricated from” just as an addiction is, he says, and “you can use the same tools to get free of that kind of stuff.”

One of the tools he talks about is meditation. “The biggest disservice to meditation is that people build it up to be way more complex than it needs to be,” he says. It involves the difference between an idea and a feeling, a concept he explains with the example of a young child asking, “Where is G‑d?”

“You would tell them, ‘G‑d is everywhere,’” he says. “But that doesn’t change the way you react to situations. Do you get any comfort from it? No, it is a theological concept. What do you do to make it emotional?”

His answer: “Think about G‑d being everywhere, think about it until you have an emotional reaction. There is a difference between an idea and a feeling and the bridge between them is thought.”

Once you have that emotional reaction, “there is a sense of comfort, peace, security. You produce it from your own thoughts. We know stuff, but it’s got to move from knowledge to emotional reality, and that changes the way we react to life,” he says.

A person who feels this comfort and security has no need to self-medicate, he says. “A spiritual person has a very high threshold to reality, the ability to feel OK no matter what’s going on.” Anyone can use this kind of meditation, he says: “It is not for the elite.”

Another tool Taub discusses involves boundaries. In discussing relationships, he talks about the distinction between love and respect: “Love is what I do for you. Respect is what I don’t do because I love you.”

For persons in co-dependent relationships – which, he says, involve “smothering, manipulating, bribing, where love becomes a barter” – he advises “give (the other person) space. It is the art of not doing, not running to rescue. It is so difficult because doing is fun and not doing is boring.”

He approvingly repeats the counterintuitive aphorism “Don’t just do something – sit there” and adds, “The soul can tell you: Sit there and give it space, give it room.”

Another such maxim: “’Let go and let G‑d.’ It is in G‑d’s hands,” he says when he speaks to the public. But, he adds, “you have to have a really good sense of what is in G‑d’s hands. How do you discern when you’re interfering or when what you’re doing is what you are needed for? What are you needed for? And when are you messing with the stuff that is not your business?”

Rabbi Meir Moscowitz of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook, which sponsored Taub’s recent lecture, says these ideas go over well with audiences. He was excited to sponsor the talk, he says.

“I first got to know Rabbi Taub when I presented the JLI (Jewish Learning Institute) course ‘Soul Maps: Kabbalah to Navigate Your Inner World’ that Rabbi Taub authored,” Moscowitz wrote in a recent email. “It was extremely well received and I appreciated Rabbi Taub’s ability to get to the core of an issue and clarity in presentation. I think his talk (and recent book) is relevant to all. It’s about learning how to bring more serenity into your life. You don’t have to be an addict to benefit from that.”

Taub, meanwhile, seems as surprised as anyone at his success. “Why are people interested?” he says. “Here’s this rabbi, Chasidic rabbi, and he’s being considered by the secular world as an expert in an area that normally people would look to clinicians for guidance.”

The answer, he believes, is in his emphasis on spirituality.

When he speaks with non-Jewish clients and families, he says, he realizes that his message “transcends religion and culture. People (might) look at me, my clothes, this ultra-Orthodox, marginalized niche. But it’s been the exact opposite. I’ve been able to reach such a broad audience. I am really grateful.”

Future plans include creating a retreat where “throughout the year, people can get together, do a weekend, a few days of intensive work. It’s a dream I have. When I lecture, it is hit and run. When I get together with people in smaller groups it’s more intensive, interactive. With G‑d’s help the pieces will fall together.”

And for all the acclaim he’s received, he insists he is doing nothing more than “translating Torah into psychological terms, translating Jewish theology into the jargon of today. I just try to teach Torah the way I understand it,” he says. “It transcends addict, non-addict, culture, religion. It is universal.”