November 17, 2018

A Rabbi’s path for recovery

Thirty years ago, after what he’s called his “umpteenth” arrest for fraud, forgery and bad checks, Mark Borovitz had a “spiritual awakening.” While incarcerated, he “immersed” himself in Torah, and reinforced it with the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and other rabbis.

In the introduction to his recently published book, “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah,” Borovitz talks about how his Torah immersion — while in jail — took him on a transformational journey from a life of crime to becoming a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, a Los Angeles addiction treatment center, to being rabbi and CEO at Beit T’Shuvah, where he’s ministered to thousands going through recovery. (Beit T’Shuvah’s approach, developed largely by Harriet Rossetto, who founded the treatment center and is married to Borovitz, involves three prongs: Torah study, the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step program and intense psychological self-examination.)

Subtitled “A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness,” “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah(Jewish Lights) dedicates one page to each day of the year. “You don’t have to be an addict to find recovery in Torah,” Borovitz writes. The book’s daily devotional can be used by anyone “searching for a deeper connection” to oneself, to others and to Torah. Every page ends with profound personal questions — inspired by that week’s parsha — that urge the reader to examine his or her own life. If answered honestly, these queries call for thoughtful self-assessment. 

Bearded, wearing a flat cap, often throwing out funny asides, Rabbi Mark — as he’s called at Beit T’Shuvah — has the look, manner and self-deprecating rhythm of an Old Testament prophet as played by Richard Dreyfuss. We met at Beit T’Shuvah to talk about his book.

Jewish Journal: In “Finding Recovery,” the way you frame your comments about the parsha, and your questions following those comments, are not the traditional way of reading Torah.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz: I hope not! [laughs] If you just go with the same old stuff, it’s not new; it’s not dynamic; and it’s not personal. Torah is a personal document for each of us. It’s the love song, the love story. It’s my daughter telling me, “Daddy, here’s what I need for you to be a better daddy.” It’s my mother telling me, “Son, here’s what I need for you to be a better son.” It’s my brother and sister saying, “Here’s what we need. Here’s the way, here’s the path because we want you.”

On one level, [the book] may not seem traditional … but I think it’s the most traditional way of seeing Torah, because I’m immersed [in Torah] and I’m making it mine, and I’m making it ours. And each week I’m finding God and finding other people, and I’m being connected.

JJ: Some of the questions you pose, at the end of each page, can be answered easily, while others require a great deal of critical thinking and self-exploration.

MB: I think that some [answers] are more evident than others. The point is to help people get into the habit of asking and finding the right questions. … It’s also to give people permission and a way into the text that’s different from the traditional, or at least the traditional commentaries that have been printed. It goes back to this idea of immersion. You have to immerse yourself. 

JJ: There are more than 1,000 questions in your book, some of which come back again and again in different forms, like: What are you doing to rebuild your life? In what ways do you blame others for your own failures? How can you guard against inner demons that would pull you into relapse? What false gods are you following?

MB: All the questions are to help people be in recovery. Recovery is not the same as abstinence. Recovery is where I do the next right thing … not just to stay sober, but to be human. … How does this help me to be more human? Because it’s a process, being human. 

So for me it’s the sense of, “How do I recover? How do I recover the joy, the joy that I had as a parent when my daughter was born? The joy I experienced in the arms of my parents and my family? How do I recover the joy and the love I first experienced with my wife? With my friends? And how do I grow it each day?” 

JJ: Clearly, this book is meant to be read one page per day, and to take time to answer the questions at the end of each page. Is that the way you’d recommend that people use this book?

MB: Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel said that religion is here to help us recover the questions. Today we’re so busy trying to find answers that we often don’t ask the right questions. So in my own history, I felt defective, not fitting in. At that time, I asked myself: “How do I get out of this feeling?” Alcohol and crime were the answers to that question. The real question is not how do I get out of this feeling, but how do I live as a member of a community, a member of a family? That gets a different response: Let me stop worrying about my own needs and realize that I’m needed. Let me stop asking what am I getting out of life and rather respond to God’s question — what is life getting out of me, as Rabbi Heschel so beautifully put it. 

When I’m immersed in my life and I see that I’ve done something that harms somebody, I immediately have this deep experience of regret. So I have to be able to hear and give power to my soul, so that my soul has veto power over my rationalizations and over my emotions. And my soul propels me to do the next right thing. That’s the core: doing the next right thing.

JJ: You use words and phrases from the Torah, but you could use virtually any book of ancient wisdom and take words or phrases from those in order to get at the issues of self-reflection in the 12-step program. What added value do you get from using the Torah?

MB: I see Torah as God’s gift to humanity, the love song of God to humans. It gives us the opportunity to reciprocate our love to God. Torah speaks to each of us in our own way, in our own language, according to our own experience. I choose Torah because I’m communicating with my ancestors, with my peers and with God. 

JJ: Could this book have been written without reference to God?

MB: Well, that depends. If you’re talking about God as the man in the sky … absolutely. But if you’re talking about God as the creative force in the universe, what connects me to you, absolutely not. That’s the energy that says we all have a purpose. Without God, we get the craziness of senseless hatred. With God, we get the joy of shalem and shalom. Wholeness and peace.