The Twelve Steps and Jewish Tradition

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-099 The Twelve Steps and Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Susan Berman THE JACS JOURNAL Vol. 3, No.1, 1992

THE JACS JOURNAL Vol. 3, No.1, 1992

by Rabbi Susan Berman

Separating, Judaism and Jewishness

For the moment we need to set Judaism and Jewishness apart. Judaism is more than simply a religion. We often hear it called a way of life. That part of it which is cultural, culinary, linguistic, and attitudinal is "Jewishness." Jewishness is expressed in bagels and lox, Yiddish and ladino, Jewish Family Service Associations, and Jewish orphanages. A person can do Jewish things without ever participating religiously.

This is important for discussing the barricade of denial, the belief that no Jew could be alcoholic, that's prevalent in the Jewish community.

The Stigma of the Chemically Dependent Jew

Many of us grew up hearing that Shikker is a Goy - a drunk is a non-Jew. To be chemically dependent implied that one's Jewish status was questionable. Just as we believed that Jewish men did not beat their wives or that there was no such thing as a Jewish homosexual or lesbian, our communities (through their assumptions) taught us that to be a Jew seemingly granted a person immunity to 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.

No Jewish teaching equates abuse of alcohol and other drugs with sin. Alcoholism and drug addiction is an illness. We've all 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 blame the person. It is not his or her fault. Addiction is the same thing. True, people can't be addicts if they never use, but drinking and using other drugs are not sins.

The idea that there are no Jewish alcoholics or addicts - that those Jews who are chemically dependent are less than full Jews - is not a tenet of Judaism. It is an outgrowth of Jewishness.

Understanding that there is a difference between Jewishness and Judaism is to explore the role each plays in our lives. Unless you grew up in an Orthodox or Hassidic Jewish home, it is likely 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 like an endless series of boring worship services punctuated by interminably long sermons. It is much easier to be involved Jewishly by giving to the Federation and working for Israel than by studying, probing, asking questions, and receiving obscure answers.

For these reasons, Jewishness overshadows Judaism in our society. This is unfortunate, and for the Jewish alcoholic it is sometimes tragic. As we know, Judaism is a spiritual, God - centered approach to life that can save the alcoholic and addict. What we shall explore next is how to live our Judaism.

Is This Jewish A.A.?

Spirituality transcends religion and religious concerns. Spirituality concerns itself with beliefs; religion with practice. For the alcoholic, it is positive action becoming belief that keeps one sober. Religion is not necessary to sobriety. But neither is it irrelevant. In As Bill Sees It, Bill Wilson, A.A.'s co-founder, wrote, "We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect. Each man's theology is his own quest, his own affair." It follows that religious practice can be an aid to, and an enhancement of, the spiritual life we are building.

But for the recovering Jew, there may be difficulties in claiming spirituality and its religious possibilities that the program's non-Jewish members don't encounter.

The problem is not theological. In A.A., God's (or as some prefer, a Higher Power's) existence is a given. How people arrive at that belief is their journey. How can Judaism help on that journey? The A.A. program often represents a person's first mature grappling with the ideas and vocabulary of spiritual life. This tends to confuse many recovering Jews. The words associated with spiritual reality are often perceived to be Christian words. They raise our suspicions.

The 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 ideas to us. In spite of the language barrier, sobriety and recovery can bring us to a new appreciation of spirituality and our religion. Recovery must come first. Then, an increased Jewish understanding can enhance our recovery.

Questions and issues concerning language are important to consider. The word sin, God, prayer, humility, and miracle are often heard at meetings and encountered in our literature. But we rarely discuss sin in a Jewish context. Praying, and postures in which we pray, are only occasionally discussed in synagogues. They are, after all, not mainly a place for prayer, but a place for worship. Yet that, and these other seemingly "non-Jewish" ideas 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: miracles and sin.


The use of the word miracle in and around A.A. is most often connected to what people term "the miracle of sobriety." Truly, it is against all medical odds and understanding that alcoholics and other addicts can remain clean and sober for any length of time. The very definition of being addicted to alcohol and other drugs negates the idea of sobriety. It is also in good theological context to use the word miracle in connection to sobriety. A miracle is an occurrence outside the realm of the ordinary. Divine intervention is necessary for the working of miracles.

In Torah, we learn of many supernatural miracles: the parting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai, the feeding of the Israelites in the desert. Talmud teaches, however, that the age of supernatural miracles is over. What remains are the daily miracles in our lives. Through these we are able to recognize seemingly mundane happenings - as well as extraordinary events like the maintenance of sobriety - as evidence of God's special power.

Miracles are given to us. Although they are no longer the miracles of giant upheaval our ancestors witnessed, they still 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 context.

In our daily liturgies, God is called "the One who cures all humanity and works wonders." Surely, the disease of addiction and a person's recovery is one of God's great wonders. We are keenly aware that without Divine help, few of us could find recovery. When we shrink from the word miracle, it is because we are taking it out of context. The word is used sometimes too freely or sometimes not at all. Let us lay aside our prejudices and name what truly has taken place in our lives. It is a miracle.


Discussions of sin at A.A. meetings are most often connected with the Forth Step and the taking of our inventories. It is here that we first begin to see our shortcomings and feel that we are in need of some thinking and behavior changes. Some of us tend to think of ourselves as having sinned or being sinful. But what also happened to me - and to others - is we heard the word sin and our mind snapped shut. The word brought images of fire-and-brimstone preachers. And so we got stuck. Must we short circuit the Twelve Steps by disassociating ourselves from sin, or do we negate our Judaism in favor of recovery? Thankfully, there is a middle ground. Sin, too, has a Jewish context.

There are many names for sin in Hebrew. They translate as transgression, breach, and trespass. The unifying factor common to them all is that, as the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, "It is not the external nature of the act that makes it sinful...the sinner is one who has failed in his relation to God and people." What sin means in Judaism is the failure of a relationship, whether the relationship is with people or with God. Sins can be what we've done or what we haven't done that we should have. Sin is human. It is part of having a nature that is both potentially exalted and potentially base.


The 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 to God's will, as taught in Jewish teachings, that we can find a solution to the problems caused by sin. What is required from us each day to put our failings behind us is contrition and changed behavior.

Among other days and holy seasons, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intimately connected with acknowledgment of our shortcomings. I have one recovering friend who uses these holidays to do an extended Tenth Step inventory. This practice helps her integrate Judaism and her program in her life.


Prayer 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 from Judaism can make prayer difficult for us. In a Jewish cultural context, prayer may feel alien, not quite Jewish. But private and public prayer are integral parts of Judaism.

The 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, the words are there. But they are not only words: they exist in the prayer book as guidelines. Read the words sometime in English - there is much beauty there. There literal meaning is important, but it is not the only meaning in them.

Stories are told of the old Hassidic teachers who would prepare for prayer, through meditation and praise, an hour before praying to be able to see and feel the mystical meanings beyond the words. With practice and dedication, we can discover many meanings within formalized Jewish prayer.

Personal prayer has always been an integral part of Jewish worship. It is here that we may first grasp the possibility for self-judgment within a praying framework. What are we praying for? What are our concerns and needs? Truly, these are clues to who we are and where we stand on the road of recovery.

Many people are concerned over the proper form of prayers, their length, and the language in which they are offered. As to the last, Talmud allows the prayer of the heart to be offered in any language the person who is praying understands. The form or the length is not prescribed. What is important is kavvanah - intention. Our sincerity, honesty, and desire are the important factors in private, Jewish prayer.

The Lord's Prayer was, in its original inception, Jewish. It is now known as a Christian liturgical piece. Though other prayers might be more palatable to Jews when closing a meeting, there really is nothing prohibiting our recitation of it. Furthermore, the need for meetings and fellowship must override any squeamishness. We are in A.A. to save our lives. In Judaism, this principle is called pikuach nefesh - the preservation of life. When invoked, it overrides all other concerns or prohibitions. Let us not use this prayer as a excuse for staying away from the help we need.

An issue I hear frequently concerns proper praying postures. Should we pray on our knees? Historically, Jews stopped praying on their knees as a way to differentiate themselves from Christians. But there is still valid Jewish experience which includes praying on one's knees. The Karaite Jews pray on their knees. Remnants of this practice remain, too, in our worship, particularly on Yom Kippur. Our aversion to kneeling has more to do with its current identification as a non-Jewish practice.

I am neither comfortable nor humbled on my knees. Kneeling doesn't work for me. But it took me time to discover what is right for me in regard to posture, just as it did in regard to all facets of my program. The message here is, don't be discouraged! Find what is right for you. Explore both your recovery program and your Judaism. Over time, and with God's help, may you come to see how beautifully enriching each can be to the other.

Jewish Spirituality

Many of us have not been taught belief and faith in our lives. For many good reasons, we learned history and ritual first. This is what a child can understand. It is what's necessary for the preservation of our people. And it is easier to teach. But this is not all there is.

Because you are reading this, you sense there is more. We have been focusing on words and ideas - sin and miracles and building a Jewish prayer life, culture and community. Now I would like to offer a context to these seemingly scattered thoughts. The context can be summed up in three words: God, Torah, and Israel.


The word God evokes innumerable images and prejudices. It is just a word; please do not let its use distract you from considering the concept. Throughout the history of Jewish thought, many names have been used for the deity. There are countless systems of theology in Judaism. They are varied and sometimes even contradictory. All concern themselves with basic questions such as God's name, existence, nature, and relationship to the world.

This "Power greater than ourselves" has a special relationship to Jews as a people. The hallmark of this relationship is our mutual covenant.

The giving of the covenant was and remains an act of love. But love entails responsibility. God is responsible to us for protection. 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 speak to the life of dialogue between humanity and deity. Other Jews believe mystical contemplation and prayer are the proper forms of human response to God. Still others find their answers to the covenant's challenge in tikkun olam - the reparation of the world's broken fragments. All are possible. All are valid. All are Jewish. But all 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 and intensity. We find joy in the expression of our relationship with God.


How can we determine God's will for us? That is both simple and difficult. It is through Torah, which means many things. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible written on a parchment scroll in Hebrew without vowels, is the sum of all Jewish learning and knowledge from ancient days until today. As such, it contains what we believe to be God's will for us.

All 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 in quotes because these subjects are of great importance to those Jews who believe in and wait for the re-establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.) Since Torah is understood as the expression of God's will, all life's issues will be addressed therein.


By Israel, we mean the spiritual entity that is the Jewish people. The specific land of Israel is contained in this category, 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 that all Jews in all places are thinking the same thoughts at the same time. While I know this is not factually true, it feels spiritually true. 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. And, in joy, it is the reality of Elie Weisel winning a Nobel Prize for literature and all of us walking a bit prouder.

Our Spirituality

To find Jewish spirituality we must find a way to reach beyond ourselves in a Jewish context. For some of us that will be available in existing temples, shuls, synagogues, buildings, and programs. For others, we have to go out and create the community we crave. What I have attempted to present here are the possibilities. Prayer can play a part. So can history, peoplehood, and God. All are there for reclamation. There is a national organization called JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemical Dependent Persons and Significant Others Foundation, Inc., 197 East Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10003; (212) 473-4747). It teaches, informs, enhances, and provides spiritual outlets for recovering Jews and their loved ones. Truly, there is much where once there was nothing.

Through our days and years of alcohol and other drug abuse, we estranged ourselves from the world, our friends, our families, and ultimately ourselves. For most of us, our Judaism also became alien to us. And even if we were involved, the feelings and joy were gone. 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 race.


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In practicing our Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. has neither endorsed nor are they affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous®, AA®, and the Big Book® are registered trademarks of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.