By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
The second century sage, Chiyya, counseled his son: “Don’t do drugs” (Pesachim 113A). Rashi (1040-1105) explained this fatherly advice: (“Do not accustom yourself to taking drugs, for the practice will become habitual; you will develop a dependency; and you will meet financial ruin” (ad loc.). Rashi’s grandson, the Tosafist, Rashbam, went still further, adding to his revered grandfather’s commentary: “…and avoid the use of drugs even for medicine and healing, if any other treatment is available” (ad loc.).
This pioneering and prescient chain of tradition – prescribing a principled wariness of narcotics and pharmaceuticals – bears directly upon the growing opioid crisis in the United States. That crisis has claimed some 750,000 lives since the year 2000… many, as Rashbam seems to have anticipated, due to the abuse of legally prescribed but addictive painkillers.
Surely, Chiyya and Rashi, too, would agree that greater scrutiny in monitoring prescriptions, development of alternative treatments, and effective, compassionate intervention are all sorely needed.
Karl Marx slandered religion (especially organized religion) as “the opiate of the people” – inducing stupefying illusions that keep practitioners from confronting class struggle and the attendant oppression and human suffering. To the contrary, our Tradition, which so long ago warned of the dangers of true opiates, demands we act to relieve (and prevent) the suffering born of addiction.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)