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JACS JOURNAL Vol. 3, No.1, 1992
TWELVE STEPS AND JEWISH TRADITION
by Rabbi Susan Berman
Judaism and Jewishness
the moment we need to set Judaism and Jewishness apart.
Judaism is more than simply a religion. We often hear it
way of life. That part of it which is cultural, culinary,
linguistic, and attitudinal is "Jewishness." Jewishness
expressed in bagels and lox, Yiddish and ladino, Jewish
Service Associations, and Jewish orphanages. A person can
Jewish things without ever participating religiously.
is important for discussing the barricade of denial, the
belief that no Jew could be alcoholic, that's prevalent
Stigma of the Chemically Dependent Jew
of us grew up hearing that Shikker is a Goy - a drunk is
a non-Jew. To be chemically dependent implied that one's
status was questionable. Just as we believed that Jewish
not beat their wives or that there was no such thing as
homosexual or lesbian, our communities (through their assumptions)
taught us that to be a Jew seemingly granted a person immunity
alcoholism or other drug addiction. The feeling among Jewish
alcoholics and addicts was one of intense shame. To be chemically
dependent meant to be less than a full Jew.
Jewish teaching equates abuse of alcohol and other drugs
with sin. Alcoholism and drug addiction is an illness. We've
heard that. But maybe it hasn't really sunk in yet. If someone
should get diabetes we are sorry to hear it, but we don't
the person. It is not his or her fault. Addiction is the
thing. True, people can't be addicts if they never use,
drinking and using other drugs are not sins.
idea that there are no Jewish alcoholics or addicts -
that those Jews who are chemically dependent are less than
Jews - is not a tenet of Judaism. It is an outgrowth of
that there is a difference between Jewishness
and Judaism is to explore the role each plays in our lives.
you grew up in an Orthodox or Hassidic Jewish home, it is
that Jewishness played a larger part in your life than Judaism.
Even for those of us who were raised in observant homes,
Jewishness often obscured Judaism. Unless you knew the siddur
(prayer book) in the original Hebrew, Judaism may have felt
an endless series of boring worship services punctuated
interminably long sermons. It is much easier to be involved
Jewishly by giving to the Federation and working for Israel
by studying, probing, asking questions, and receiving obscure
these reasons, Jewishness overshadows Judaism in our
society. This is unfortunate, and for the Jewish alcoholic
sometimes tragic. As we know, Judaism is a spiritual, God
centered approach to life that can save the alcoholic and
What we shall explore next is how to live our Judaism.
This Jewish A.A.?
transcends religion and religious concerns.
Spirituality concerns itself with beliefs; religion with
For the alcoholic, it is positive action becoming belief
keeps one sober. Religion is not necessary to sobriety.
neither is it irrelevant. In As Bill Sees It, Bill Wilson,
co-founder, wrote, "We are only operating a spiritual
in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find
grace to go on living to better effect. Each man's theology
own quest, his own affair." It follows that religious
be an aid to, and an enhancement of, the spiritual life
for the recovering Jew, there may be difficulties in
claiming spirituality and its religious possibilities that
program's non-Jewish members don't encounter.
problem is not theological. In A.A., God's (or as some
prefer, a Higher Power's) existence is a given. How people
at that belief is their journey. How can Judaism help on
journey? The A.A. program often represents a person's first
grappling with the ideas and vocabulary of spiritual life.
tends to confuse many recovering Jews. The words associated
spiritual reality are often perceived to be Christian words.
raise our suspicions.
problem presents itself, I believe, because we speak
English. If we spoke Hebrew, t'fillah (prayer) and q'uelah
(redemption) might feel much more like acceptably Jewish
us. In spite of the language barrier, sobriety and recovery
bring us to a new appreciation of spirituality and our religion.
Recovery must come first. Then, an increased Jewish understanding
can enhance our recovery.
and issues concerning language are important to
consider. The word sin, God, prayer, humility, and miracle
often heard at meetings and encountered in our literature.
rarely discuss sin in a Jewish context. Praying, and postures
which we pray, are only occasionally discussed in synagogues.
are, after all, not mainly a place for prayer, but a place
worship. Yet that, and these other seemingly "non-Jewish"
and practices, do have Jewish context and meaning. The meanings
are different than our common, Christian-influenced
understandings. Let us explore, first of all, two ideas:
use of the word miracle in and around A.A. is most often
connected to what people term "the miracle of sobriety."
is against all medical odds and understanding that alcoholics
other addicts can remain clean and sober for any length
The very definition of being addicted to alcohol and other
negates the idea of sobriety. It is also in good theological
context to use the word miracle in connection to sobriety.
miracle is an occurrence outside the realm of the ordinary.
intervention is necessary for the working of miracles.
Torah, we learn of many supernatural miracles: the parting
of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai, the feeding of
Israelites in the desert. Talmud teaches, however, that
the age of
supernatural miracles is over. What remains are the daily
in our lives. Through these we are able to recognize seemingly
mundane happenings - as well as extraordinary events like
maintenance of sobriety - as evidence of God's special power.
are given to us. Although they are no longer the
miracles of giant upheaval our ancestors witnessed, they
come to teach us of God in our lives. Again, there is nothing
non-Jewish about such talk or concepts. It is all in the
our daily liturgies, God is called "the One who cures
humanity and works wonders." Surely, the disease of
a person's recovery is one of God's great wonders. We are
aware that without Divine help, few of us could find recovery.
When we shrink from the word miracle, it is because we are
it out of context. The word is used sometimes too freely
sometimes not at all. Let us lay aside our prejudices and
what truly has taken place in our lives. It is a miracle.
of sin at A.A. meetings are most often connected
with the Forth Step and the taking of our inventories. It
that we first begin to see our shortcomings and feel that
in need of some thinking and behavior changes. Some of us
think of ourselves as having sinned or being sinful. But
happened to me - and to others - is we heard the word sin
mind snapped shut. The word brought images of fire-and-brimstone
preachers. And so we got stuck. Must we short circuit the
Steps by disassociating ourselves from sin, or do we negate
Judaism in favor of recovery? Thankfully, there is a middle
ground. Sin, too, has a Jewish context.
are many names for sin in Hebrew. They translate as
transgression, breach, and trespass. The unifying factor
them all is that, as the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, "It
is not the
external nature of the act that makes it sinful...the sinner
who has failed in his relation to God and people."
What sin means in
Judaism is the failure of a relationship, whether the relationship
with people or with God. Sins can be what we've done or
haven't done that we should have. Sin is human. It is part
a nature that is both potentially exalted and potentially
Jewish concept of a savior, or messiah, embodies both a
national and a personal component. The messiah will herald
the end of
days - a time of peace for all. It is through adherence
will, as taught in Jewish teachings, that we can find a
the problems caused by sin. What is required from us each
day to put
our failings behind us is contrition and changed behavior.
other days and holy seasons, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
are intimately connected with acknowledgment of our shortcomings.
have one recovering friend who uses these holidays to do
Tenth Step inventory. This practice helps her integrate
her program in her life.
is vital to recovery. The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous,
makes it clear that unless we continually enlarge our spiritual
lives, we are in danger of returning to our former ways.
Praying is a
way to ensure our growth. Yet, having to separate Jewishness
Judaism can make prayer difficult for us. In a Jewish cultural
context, prayer may feel alien, not quite Jewish. But private
public prayer are integral parts of Judaism.
Hebrew word for prayer, t'fillah, comes from a verb meaning
"to judge oneself." This is the essence of Jewish
prayer. It is not
an exercise of repeating words in singsong phrases. True,
are there. But they are not only words: they exist in the
as guidelines. Read the words sometime in English - there
beauty there. There literal meaning is important, but it
is not the
only meaning in them.
are told of the old Hassidic teachers who would prepare
for prayer, through meditation and praise, an hour before
be able to see and feel the mystical meanings beyond the
practice and dedication, we can discover many meanings within
formalized Jewish prayer.
prayer has always been an integral part of Jewish
worship. It is here that we may first grasp the possibility
self-judgment within a praying framework. What are we praying
What are our concerns and needs? Truly, these are clues
to who we are
and where we stand on the road of recovery.
people are concerned over the proper form of prayers, their
length, and the language in which they are offered. As to
Talmud allows the prayer of the heart to be offered in any
the person who is praying understands. The form or the length
prescribed. What is important is kavvanah - intention. Our
honesty, and desire are the important factors in private,
Lord's Prayer was, in its original inception, Jewish. It
now known as a Christian liturgical piece. Though other
be more palatable to Jews when closing a meeting, there
nothing prohibiting our recitation of it. Furthermore, the
meetings and fellowship must override any squeamishness.
We are in
A.A. to save our lives. In Judaism, this principle is called
nefesh - the preservation of life. When invoked, it overrides
other concerns or prohibitions. Let us not use this prayer
excuse for staying away from the help we need.
issue I hear frequently concerns proper praying postures.
Should we pray on our knees? Historically, Jews stopped
their knees as a way to differentiate themselves from Christians.
there is still valid Jewish experience which includes praying
one's knees. The Karaite Jews pray on their knees. Remnants
practice remain, too, in our worship, particularly on Yom
aversion to kneeling has more to do with its current identification
as a non-Jewish practice.
am neither comfortable nor humbled on my knees. Kneeling
doesn't work for me. But it took me time to discover what
for me in regard to posture, just as it did in regard to
of my program. The message here is, don't be discouraged!
is right for you. Explore both your recovery program and
Judaism. Over time, and with God's help, may you come to
beautifully enriching each can be to the other.
of us have not been taught belief and faith in our lives.
For many good reasons, we learned history and ritual first.
what a child can understand. It is what's necessary for
preservation of our people. And it is easier to teach. But
not all there is.
you are reading this, you sense there is more. We have
been focusing on words and ideas - sin and miracles and
Jewish prayer life, culture and community. Now I would like
a context to these seemingly scattered thoughts. The context
summed up in three words: God, Torah, and Israel.
word God evokes innumerable images and prejudices. It is
just a word; please do not let its use distract you from
the concept. Throughout the history of Jewish thought, many
have been used for the deity. There are countless systems
in Judaism. They are varied and sometimes even contradictory.
concern themselves with basic questions such as God's name,
existence, nature, and relationship to the world.
"Power greater than ourselves" has a special relationship
to Jews as a people. The hallmark of this relationship is
giving of the covenant was and remains an act of love. But
love entails responsibility. God is responsible to us for
It is the responsibility of Jews to live within the covenantal
relationship. Some interpret this to mean adherence to and
fulfillment of divine commandments, called mitzvoth. Some
the life of dialogue between humanity and deity. Other Jews
mystical contemplation and prayer are the proper forms of
response to God. Still others find their answers to the
challenge in tikkun olam - the reparation of the world's
fragments. All are possible. All are valid. All are Jewish.
also demand commitment, knowledge, and devotion. Judaism
is a two-way
street - our special relationship with God implies not only
privilege, but also responsibility. It is not all drudgery
intensity. We find joy in the expression of our relationship
can we determine God's will for us? That is both simple
difficult. It is through Torah, which means many things.
the first five books of the Bible written on a parchment
Hebrew without vowels, is the sum of all Jewish learning
knowledge from ancient days until today. As such, it contains
believe to be God's will for us.
subjects are covered in Torah. Things of national import,
such as governmental mores and formes, are discussed. Seemingly
"irrelevant" topics such as animal sacrifice in
the Jerusalem Temple
are also given detailed consideration. (I put the word irrelevant
quotes because these subjects are of great importance to
who believe in and wait for the re-establishment of the
Jerusalem.) Since Torah is understood as the expression
will, all life's issues will be addressed therein.
Israel, we mean the spiritual entity that is the Jewish
people. The specific land of Israel is contained in this
but is only a part of it. This is the "we" of
Judaism. It is the
special feeling I get in shul on Rosh Hashannah as I imagine
Jews in all places are thinking the same thoughts at the
While I know this is not factually true, it feels spiritually
The reality of the universal Israel is the reason that when
a Jew is
killed in a Turkish synagogue, a Jew in North America mourns.
joy, it is the reality of Elie Weisel winning a Nobel Prize
literature and all of us walking a bit prouder.
find Jewish spirituality we must find a way to reach beyond
ourselves in a Jewish context. For some of us that will
in existing temples, shuls, synagogues, buildings, and programs.
others, we have to go out and create the community we crave.
have attempted to present here are the possibilities. Prayer
a part. So can history, peoplehood, and God. All are there
reclamation. There is a national organization called JACS
Alcoholics, Chemical Dependent Persons and Significant Others
Foundation, Inc., 197 East Broadway, New York, N.Y.
473-4747). It teaches, informs, enhances, and provides spiritual
outlets for recovering Jews and their loved ones. Truly,
much where once there was nothing.
our days and years of alcohol and other drug abuse, we
estranged ourselves from the world, our friends, our families,
ultimately ourselves. For most of us, our Judaism also became
to us. And even if we were involved, the feelings and joy
Now that we are recovering, the option of rejoining the
people is a
real one. This is the goal of sobriety itself - the living
of a sane
and useful life as a part of, not apart from, the human