Writing, said Rabbi Abraham Twerski, is like composing a musical piece. One sits down to compose, and the ideas just come.
And so it was with his newest book, “Gevurah: My Life, Our World, and the Adventure of Reaching 80,” written to mark his 80th birthday, which he celebrated this past October.
“I had no idea what I was going to put in the book,” mused the celebrated Torah scholar and psychiatrist, and founder of Pittsburgh’s Gateway Rehabilitation Center for treating drug and alcohol addictions. But when his publisher suggested he write a memoir — of sorts — he said he was “more than happy to do it.”
The title of the book comes from Psalms 90:10: “The days of our years among them are seventy years, and if with strength (gevurah), eighty years.”
It is “attitudinal strength” that one aspires to as an octogenarian, Twerski told the Chronicle a strength born of a lifetime of experiences and lessons, many of which are recounted in his recent book.
For one who has reached the age of 80, “gevurah is obviously not physical strength,” Twerski said. “I am a lot less strong than I used to be. Maybe it (the psalm) means you have to be strong to survive to 80. Or maybe gevurah is being able to smile at someone and talk to him pleasantly when you’re being pushed in a wheelchair. It is attitudinal. On my good days, I’ve reached it.”
Whatever gevurah means at 80, it is clear that Twerski has been blessed with remarkable strength throughout his lifetime, strength leading to enormous productivity, compassion and the courage to, on many occasions, buck the system.
Besides authoring more than 60 books, he estimates he has helped more than 40,000 people recover from substance abuse through rehabilitation at Gateway in the last 40 years. He is also recognized as having called out addiction problems in the Jewish community, as well as exposing the problems of Jewish spousal abuse, which many people are still unwilling to recognize.
“I don’t think there is any question that my constantly beating the drum has brought it out,” Twerski said of spousal abuse in the Jewish community. “There is no question that my efforts have paid off in the long run.”
While Jewish spousal abuse continues to be a problem, Twerski said, “more women are now getting help. There are more organizations and more hotlines, and there is more education among rabbis. Unfortunately, there are some [rabbis] who are still in the dark and simply don’t believe it could happen in the Jewish community.”
Twerski has been a pioneer on other fronts as well, including forging the path for religious Jews to assume secular careers.
“I was a trailblazer,” Twerski said of his foray into medicine as a Chasidic Jew in the 1950s. “Now it’s more common; there are many physicians and other professionals [in the Chasidic community]. There has been a tendency the past 40 or 50 years for observant people to go into secular professions. Before, it was rare, because of the old idea that all secularism is anti-religious. That has gradually changed.”
In “Gevurah,” Twerski often intertwines modern day psychiatric principles with wisdom from the Torah, demonstrating that the secular world and the observant Jewish world are not always at odds. He recounts several anecdotes from his childhood, growing up in a Chasidic home in Milwaukee, applying the lessons he learned then to living life in a modern world. As many of these stories recall life in a simpler time, Twerski often laments the double-edged sword of living in a high-tech society.
“Every technological advance has its good effects and its side effects,” Twerski said. “A parent called me up recently, concerned his son was addicted to texting. Every time there is a new gadget introduced, there is another avenue for people to get addicted.”
A modern-day adult emphasis on “making life as pleasant as possible” has filtered down to our youth, Twerski said, and has had alarming effects.
“Kids are seeking instant gratification,” he said. “And if they can’t get it, maybe they turn to marijuana. They really are just doing what the adult population is doing.
“If the adult population adopted the goal of spirituality, maybe the kids would have a different attitude. But I don’t see it happening as a society. People are way too committed to physical indulgences.”
Comparing our pleasure-seeking society to a drug addict, Twerski said a shift in perspective, which is necessary to end an addiction, is not easy to achieve.
“An addict will not change until a crisis forces him to change,” he said. “An addict has to hit rock bottom. I don’t know what rock bottom will be for society. I don’t have too much hope for society to change. People are consistently pursuing comfort, convenience and pleasure. Technology puts out something new, and people go line up to get it right away. We are operating by the pleasure principle. And it’s getting worse.”
Although Twerski is not optimistic about a positive shift in societal mores, he does hold out hope for the individual family.
“Hopefully, if individual families can realize that a life of indulgence is purposeless and essentially living an animal life with intelligence, if a family can get that idea, then they’ve got to establish a spiritual goal for their families. That is something an individual family can do.”
At the conclusion of “Gevurah,” Twerski writes that his “berachah to everyone is that when you reach 80, 90 or 100, you can look back and say, ‘If I had to do it all over again, I would live my life exactly as I did.’”
Looking back over the past 80 years, Twerski says with confidence that he has “no regrets at all.”
“I can’t think of anything I would have done differently,” he said. “I am pleased with my choice of career. I get a lot of gratification from people. It’s wonderful when people come up to you on the streets and say, ‘You’ve saved my life.’”
While Twerski is retired from active psychiatry practice, he still lectures at Gateway once a month, writes and does a bit of consulting.
So what’s next?
“I have several ideas I’ve been playing around with,” he said. “I have a bunch of pokers in the fire.”
And, most definitely, the gevurah to see them through.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)