People come to therapy for various reasons and through different avenues, but a common thread is that they wish to improve their overall functioning or wellbeing or change specific patterns in their lives. Patients will identify problematic or risky behaviors, interpersonal tendencies that sour their relationships, or upsetting, uncomfortable thoughts or feelings that plague them. While the first few therapy sessions tend to focus on these goals and how therapy can help, we also spend time talking about motivation and commitment to doing the work that will help make those changes.
Often, highly motivated and distressed people over-commit to change. “I want to stop ____ cold turkey,” they’ll say. They’ll describe why these changes are important and insist that they can and will drastically reduce or stop a behavior altogether. Sometimes, when it comes to certain behaviors or thoughts, patients will be determined to not even have the urge, craving, or thought come into their mind. While I respect their earnestness and would not be in this field if I did not believe that people can change, I often push back against this idealism and normalize some of the urges or tendencies people report wanting to get rid of. I encourage my patients to identify smaller ways they can move toward change, and to increase their willingness to understand why these behaviors, thoughts, or feelings keep coming up, and what to turn toward instead.
The field of addiction treatment has specifically cultivated two different approaches to changing behavior patterns. One approach, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and related groups, is the abstinence approach, which encourages complete sobriety and asks patients to abstain entirely from addictive behavior altogether. The other approach is known as the harm reduction approach, whereby individuals seeking to reduce substance use or other addictive behaviors are not discouraged from engaging in the behavior, but are encouraged to reduce it over time, to develop other healthier behaviors, and specifically to focus on partaking in the addictive behaviors in ways that are least harmful.
Research shows that both these approaches have efficacy. The degree to which one or the other approach is useful depends highly on an individual’s unique situation, needs, and circumstances, and, of course, on the therapist or treatment program. Sometimes, abstinence is not only key, it is crucial, and without abstinence, health and safety cannot be maintained. And, other times, quitting cold turkey or completely stopping a behavior just doesn’t work, and isn’t realistic. Furthermore, sometimes completely cutting out a behavior can be harmful for the individual, because often the very behaviors people are seeking to reduce have also served some purpose for them. In such cases, it is critical to be thoughtful and intentional about reducing harm, rather than solely focusing on refraining from specific habits.
Outside the world of addiction, which is in many ways a unique disease unto itself, therapists use these two approaches to target various behaviors that are less harmful but still problematic to the individuals seeking treatment. Whether to try to “do a 180” and completely change a behavior or way of thinking or to instead utilize a harm reduction approach to living and engaging with our thoughts, feelings, and actions is a constant clinical conundrum.
No concept in the Torah reflects this dichotomy more than that of the Nazir. As described in this week’s Parsha (6:2-21), the Nazir is a person who, disturbed by his urges for physicality and indulgence, makes a Neder to distance himself from physicality and become spiritually elevated. During his period of Nezirus, the Nazir abstains entirely from drinking wine, eating grape products, and cutting his hair. When he chooses to end his Nezirus, he brings a Karban Chatas.
Many Meforshim note that it is curious that on the one hand, the Nazir is called “Kadosh LaHashem,” holy to G-d (6:8), and at same time, when he completes his Nezirus, he brings a sin offering. This is strange – is the Nazir lauded for his quest for holiness and increased spirituality through abstaining from these physical pursuits, or is he criticized for it? Is his behavior praiseworthy or sinful?
Rashi (6:2) notes that the laws of the Nazir are juxtaposed with the laws of Isha Sota because perhaps one who hears about the Sota will want to refrain from drinking wine to guard against adultery. Additionally, Rashi cites the opinion of R’ Elazar Hakapar who posits that the Nazir is someone for whom abstaining from physicality is particularly painful and uncomfortable, ostensibly because he particularly enjoys physical pleasures such as drinking wine and grooming himself. The Toras Avraham, R’ Avrohom Grodzinsky, as quoted by R’ Yehonasan Gefen, explains that in that light, the Nazir is in fact doing something praiseworthy.
Yet, while the Nazir’s desire to be less tempted by physicality and therefore ideally further engaged in spirituality is admirable, the Nazir is also somewhat misguided. Due to the fact that we are spiritual souls encased in physical bodies, it is important to attend to, nourish, and embrace our body’s physical needs, desires, and preferences. Refraining from doing so, such as through fasting, celibacy, or (in the case where addiction is not present) abstaining from drinking wine may cause the body pain or discomfort. As such, the Nazir must bring a Karban Chatas, almost as an apology or atonement for neglecting his body.
Furthermore, the Nazir’s lofty ideals seem to be driven by fear. Whether due to exposure to the matters of Isha Sota or due simply to fear of over-indulgence, perhaps the Nazir is held accountable because his need to make a Neder and attain a new status as Nazir implies that he does not believe he has the capacity to choose to abstain. Perhaps the Nazir must bring a Karban Chatas because his intentions were somewhat influenced by feeling enslaved or beholden to his physicality. Additionally, in choosing to become a Nazir, the Nazir is essentially choosing to reduce physicality in order to achieve holiness, as opposed to trying to increase his spiritual pursuits toward that same end.
As physical beings, Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us, within reason, to engage in the physical world, and to at the same time be able to exercise self-control where necessary and applicable. He does not want us to curb, deny, or detach completely from our physical desires, unless these desires are dangerous to our spiritual or physical wellbeing. And, He wants us to specifically find ways increase our spiritual and positive behaviors in order to connect with Him.
I once heard a wonderful thought on this from a mentor and friend, Jackie Glaser, a renowned speaker, psychologist, and Kiruv professional who I had the honor of working with through Olami for several years. On a Meor Israel trip we co-led, Jackie relayed this idea from her Rav, Rabbi Leib Kelemen. Once, when Jackie was increasing her Torah observance, she called R’ Kelemen in a panic, expressing shame and guilt about reengaging in certain activities she had done before she was observant. In response, R’ Kelemen assured her: “In Torah Judaism, we don’t amputate – we float.” Rather than simply cutting out a part of our lives, spiritual and religious growth ought to be about slowly detaching, naturally and organically, from certain behaviors, perhaps by increasing our commitment to another way of life, or by increasing our engagement in other loftier pursuits.
Perhaps further support for this idea is seen in the laws pertaining to the end of the Nezirus period. Once the period of abstinence is over, the pasuk says, “V’achar yishteh ha’nazir yayin,” and afterward, the Nazir shall drink wine (6:20). The Nazir is specifically called to reengage in this behavior, to demonstrate that he need not fear it, or view physicality and spirituality as mutually exclusive, all-or-nothing pursuits. Interestingly, even once his period of Nezirus is over and he is drinking wine, he is still called a Nazir. Perhaps this implies that the Nazir is changed through his experience regardless of whether he is or is not engaging in the behavior he chose to target. Similarly, any movement toward change does change us, even if we do not completely disengage from a behavior cold turkey. In this light, one could perhaps see the Torah approach to physicality as aligned more closely with the harm-reduction approach. Again, in cases where addiction is not part of the picture, this approach may likely be the most healthy and effective.
An intriguing and perhaps puzzling Halachic concept, there is much to be learned from the Nazir. While there is value to abstaining from or reducing some behaviors in order to strengthen the muscle of self-control and at times in order to engage more meaningfully in spirituality, perhaps extreme asceticism is not ideal. Instead, in grappling with the need to constantly balance and synthesize our spiritual yearnings with our physical desires, it may be best to try a quasi-harm-reduction approach to physicality. This can look like increasing our engagement in spirituality (or positive behaviors) rather than focusing solely on decreasing or completely abstaining from physicality (or negative behaviors). It also means checking our internal dialogue about physicality and ensuring that we are not thinking in an all-or-nothing manner.
This week, let us consider what behaviors we are trying to change or reduce when it comes to physicality. Perhaps we are working on changing our eating or sleeping habits, reducing our social media use, or engaging differently with our children, spouse, or family. Sometimes it may be necessary to “quit” a behavior in order to maintain safety, function better, or give ourselves the experience of not having that behavior in order to reset, reflect, and reorient. And, it is important to recognize that with physical pleasures that do not causes bodily harm and are not harmful to others, it may be equally helpful to increase the good behaviors or positive opposites, rather than just abstain. If we are willing to embrace our bodies’ needs and preferences and desires, we can find ways to meet those needs in moderation, striving for spiritual and physical synthesis and harmony.