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JACS JOURNAL Vol: 3, No.1, 1993
PRAYER, THE TWELVE STEPS AND JUDAISM
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
fellowships of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous
and Al-Anon are of inestimable value in the recovery from
alcoholism and chemical dependency. Not infrequently, there
is a resistance on the part of Jews to participate on the
grounds that these programs have a religious orientation
that is non-Jewish.
us first dispense with some extraneous objections.
is Christian because meetings are held in church basements,"
say some. While it is true that the majority of A.A. meetings
are in churches, it should also be mentioned that few Jewish
facilities have welcomed A.A. The myth that Jews do not
become alcoholic has resulted in an alienation of alcoholism
treatment programs from the Jewish community.
as there is a lack of alcoholism expertise in Jewish health
agencies, so is there a dearth of synagogues and Jewish
community centers that have opened their doors to A.A. Several
years ago there were virtually no synagogue - based A.A.
meetings. Today there are communities that have one or more.
If more rabbis and community leaders would overcome their
resistance and denial, there is no question that more meetings
will be held in Jewish institutions.
meetings involve Christian liturgy," say others. While
A.A. meetings generally close with the Lord's Prayer, there
is no rule in A.A. that precludes substituting a Jewish
prayer. While others are reciting the Lord's Prayer, one
may say the 23rd Psalm or any other Jewish prayer.
the available literature on spirituality in recovery has
Christian origins," is another common complaint. Like
the first objection, this is not inherent in A.A., but a
default by Jewish theologians. Again, the prevailing lack
of awareness about alcoholism among Jews is responsible
for the absence of literature on spirituality.
this will be corrected with the increasing interest in the
problem. In some communities, knowledgeable rabbis have
begun to provide sessions on spirituality for recovering
objections are similar to the various forms of denial and
resistance inherent to the disease of alcoholism and the
awareness that help must be sought. Even after a person
accepts the presence of a problem and the need for treatment,
there is often resistance to Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.
Permit me to list the most typical forms of resistance:
A.A.'s insistence on total abstinence. The alcoholic much
prefers a treatment which would allow him (or her) to cut
back on his alcohol consumption, or teach him 'to control
his drinking. He is therefore more likely to accept some
treatment approach that would not demand total abstinence
Reluctance to be stigmatized as "alcoholic." The
prejorative nature of this term, and its association in
many people's minds with skid-row derelicts often results
in preference for the euphemism"problem drinker."
Concern that one will meet social or business acquaintances
at meetings, and that one's alcoholism will be "exposed."
there are various reasons for resistance to A.A., the rationalization
that it is alien to Jewishness is a comfortable one and
frequently exploited. Strangely, one can hear this objection
from people who have broken all identity with Judaism. It
is a rationalization that is also enjoyed by those who have
no reservations about intermarriage. Clearly, objections
of this sort are a resistance maneuver and should be recognized
essence of Alcoholics Anonymous is contained in the Twelve
Steps, the adoption of which is a .sine qua non for participation
in the fellowship. Much confusion can be eliminated if we
look at the compatibility of the steps with jewish theology.
Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that
our lives had become unmanageable.
step is the foundation of recovery since it identifies the
problem. Unless one accepts that a problem exists, efforts
to do something about the problem will be futile. Clearly,
this Step has no religious connotations.
First Step is without a doubt the most difficult. Typically
the alcoholic will deny the problem even when the evidence
is blatant and irrefutable. The loss of control over alcohol,
whether it is dependency or the inability to stop, is usually
recognized by everyone except the drinker. The physical,
emotional, social or occupational deterioration of life
may be quite evident to family, friends, employer or physician,
but the drinker often has the delusion that things are just
fine, or that his difficulties are due to the actions of
the active alcoholic Step One is terrifying because it implies
that the use of alcohol must be totally abandoned. It is
also formidable because the person may perceive admission
of powerlessness as a shortcoming or weakness. Considering
that alcoholics are invariably lacking in self-esteem, this
admission is extremely threatening to the ego. Anything
which can help bolster the fragile ego of the alcoholic
will make acceptance of powerlessness and the recognition
that one has lost control much easier. For the same reason,
punitive behavior toward the alcoholic will only depress
his self-esteem and make acceptance more difficult. Spiritual
guidance directed at improving one's sense of worth is thus
helpful in facilitating the first step and initiating recovery.
Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than
ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Talmud states "A person's temptation becomes more intense
each day, and were it not that God helps him, it would be
impossible for him to resist (Sukkah, 52b).
statement is universal, applying to all people, great or
small, wealthy or poor, learned or unlearned. The Talmud
tells us that even though giving in to destructive impulses
may be recognized to be foolish and detrimental, no one
would be able to resist these urges without the help of
God. One's own resources, regardless of how great they may
seem, are simply inadequate. Step Two is thus a statement
of fundamental Jewish belief.
Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our
lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
phrase "God as we understand Him" is a recurring
one in A.A. literature. The wording was intended to avoid
identification with any particular denomination.
Three is a logical consequence of One and Two. If I've lost
control of my life, and there's a greater power that can
restore my sanity, then it follows that I must be ready
to turn my life over to that higher power. But, for many,
this step is almost as difficult to accept as the first.
In part, this is due to the contradiction between the verbal
acknowledgement of the loss of control and the obstinate
efforts in early recovery to maintain control.
turning one's life and will over to the care of God does
not mean that one can relinquish responsibility. Although
the quoted principle of the Talmud indicates that unaided
man is helpless. It clearly does not imply that an individual
should make no effort and place total responsibility on
God. The Talmud states that God's "Assistance"
implies that one is taking some action, but needs help.
A person must do everything within his power to make his
life constructive and productive. Divine help, if sought,
will be forthcoming only when one does his share of the
Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory
Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another
human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
the works of Jewish moralists and ethicians are replete
with need for cheshbon hanefesh. This is a detailed personal
accounting taken daily, as well as a more general overview
of the direction, accomplishment and shortcomings of one's
life taken periodically, with special emphasis in the period
beginning with Rosh Hashonah and concluding with Yom Kippur.
great Chassidic master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, states
in his "Brief List for Proper Living" that "one
must repeatedly confide in another person, whether spiritual
counselor or trusted friend, all improper thoughts and impulses
which come to one's heart and mind, whether these occur
during meditation, while lying idle awaiting onset of sleep,
or at any time during the day, and one should not withhold
anything because of the shame of embarrassment."
familiar with the siddur knows that confession before God
is not restricted to Yom Kippur. A detailed confession is
required twice daily.
the greatest difficulty here is admitting to oneself, and
one must stand in admiration of the wisdom of this requirement.
Many individuals make verbal confessions from which they
are completely detached. Confessions that are not accompanied
by a sincere regret for the wrong deed and commitment to
change are worse than worthless.
sincere admission of a mistake to God or to another person
elicits forgiveness, and so should this admission elicit
forgiveness to oneself. Yet many people seem unable to forgive
themselves even when the misdeed is acknowledged and sincerely
regretted. These individuals carry a heavy load of guilt,
and this remains a hindrance to all. For the alcoholic,
this unalleviated guilt is a frequent cause of relapse.
Six: Were entirely ready to have God remove all
these defects of character.
Seven: Humbly asked Him to remove all these defects
Steps reflect an understanding of human behavior which is
well-recognized in Jewish ethics. In Judaism, man is defined
not as homo sapiens, a hominoid with intelligence, but as
homo spiritus, a hominoid with a divine spirit. According
to genesis "God blew into his nostrils a spirit of
life, and man became a living being"(II.7). Man's distinction
from lower forms of life lies in his spirit, not his intellect.
is thus essentially a biological animal with all of the
lusts, cravings, impulses and drives that are natural to
all animals. In contrast, however, man has a spirit which
enables him to master these innate urges. But all that unaided
man can do is master these forces. He cannot eradicate them
any more than he can change the color of his eyes.
man alone can't relinquish undesirable internal drives,
God can, if his help is sought. A prerequisite for divine
intervention, however, is that man first must do all that
is within his power to subdue undesirable traits. A person
who prays for divine intervention to rid himself of undesirable
lust impulses while, at the same time, indulging in sexually
provocative literature, can hardly expect divine assistance.
Whether it be lust, anger, hate, envy or greed, maximum
efforts on one's own part must fully be exhausted before
a divine response can be expected. This is the "readiness"
required in Step Six and the justification for Step Seven.
Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed
and became willing to make amends to them all.
Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever
possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, states that all the
atonement possible is ineffective if an individual has harmed
another, unless forgiveness from the victim has been sought.
If the wrong action resulted in financial loss, then adequate
restitution is required. If the offended party refuses to
grant forgiveness, he is to be approached three times. If
he remains obstinate in refusing forgiveness, and the offender
sincerely regrets his behavior. Divine forgiveness is assured.
If the victim has died, the Shulchan Aruch requires that
one take a minyan (a quorum of ten people) and visit the
burial place to publicly ask forgiveness.
Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when
we were wrong promptly admitted it.
a personal inventory on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is
not sufficient. This must be an ongoing process. The need
for recognizing a wrong and promptly admitting it is stressed
by the Talmud. The longer one delays in admitting a sin,
the more apt he is to explain away and justify his behavior,
until the sin may even appear as the right course of action.
Eleven: Sought through prayer and meditation to
improve our conscious contact with God as we understood
Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and
the power to carry that out. One of the first prayers upon
rising asks for Divine guidance and the strength to do God's
will. In Ethics of the Fathers, the Talmud states, "Make
His will your will, and negate your will before His"
Twelve: Having had a spiritual awakening as the
result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to
alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
in Jewish ethics there is a great emphasis on mutual responsibility
for one another's actions. "No man is an island."
Just as some diseases are contagious, so is moral and spiritual
deterioration. Those who are fortunate enough to achieve
a measure of spirituality to not have the right to keep
this enlightenment to themselves. The Yiddish phrase. He
is a zaddik in pelz refers to the pious one who keeps warm
by wrapping himself in furs. In other words, he maintains
a selfish piety.
should be obtained by building a fire so that others can
benefit from the heat as well.
has set an example for reaching out a helping hand. It is
not unusual for a person to be awakened in the early hours
of the morning in subzero weather and be asked to respond
to a call for help from a total stranger. The call is heeded
even though the helper realizes that the stranger may change
his mind or has fallen into a drunken stupor. Yet recovering
alcoholics respond because their disease has taught them
in very practical terms that "we either make it together,
or we don't make it at all."
Anonymous is not a religion and cannot take the place of
religion. Religion deals with ultimates, especially with
the ultimate purpose of Man's presence on earth. All Jews
need to learn more about their faith and learn from the
unlimited resources of Jewish knowledge. The recovering
alcoholic has a particular need for positive direction and
sense of purpose in his life. A.A. does not provide this.
has been said that new ideas often have a three-stage course.
At first, the idea is thought to be anti-Jewish. Then it
is decided it may be compatible with Jewishness after all.
Finally, it is declared that Jews thought of it first. This
theory notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how anyone
can point to any conflict between A.A. philosophy and Judaism.
is important for Jews as a whole, but especially for Jewish
spiritual and communal leaders, to learn more about alcoholism
and chemical dependency. In addition to the methods that
have been found effective in promoting recovery, the treasury
of Jewish tradition and learning has much to offer. A.A.
can be an invaluable ally in the comprehensive spiritual
growth for recovering Jews everywhere.