Sanctify yourself through the permissible... Yevamos 20a

Divrei Torah to provide Chizuk in the struggle to balance spiritual and physical needs.

L'Iluei Nishmas Mirkah Bas Yosef

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are the Twelve Steps Kosher? from Rabbi Avraham Twerski

The 12-step programs have been a very effective method of overcoming the scourge of a variety of addictions—alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex—and several others. Some opinions have been voiced regarding the propriety of these programs for Torah-observant Jews, and I’d like to bring some clarity to the issues.

Inasmuch as most of the meetings are of mixed genders, this has been raised as an objection. This is not a fault of the program, but rather a logistic problem, and can be resolved by forming separate meetings for men and women.

Since the majority of meetings are held in church basements or social halls, some feel that these are Christian programs. The sad fact is that very few synagogues have made themselves available to program meetings. Inasmuch as the various addictions have seriously affected many Jews, it would be a mitzvah for synagogues to open their doors to meetings.

It may be argued that the first of the 12-step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, was the outgrowth of a Christian group. This is true. However, as we shall see, the content of the 12-step programs is not only compatible with Torah, but actually seems to have been adopted from Torah sources. I cannot understand how the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, had access to concepts that we find in the Talmud and the mussar writings. The fact hat they were adopted by a Christian group hardly disqualifies them, just as the kedusha in the amidah was not disqualified by its adoption into the Lord’s Prayer.

Some people mistakenly thought the 5th step to be like the Catholic confession. As we will see, it is not.

Let us now look at the 12 steps.

Step #1

We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step #2

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is essentially the Talmudic statement (Kedushin 30b) that one’s yetzer hara (evil inclination) increases in strength every day, and were it not for the help of G-d, one would not be able to withstand it. In other words, without the help of G-d, we are powerless over the yetzer hara. Indeed, the Talmud relates that two of our greatest tzaddikim were tempted by Satan and were actually in the process of submitting to the sin, and were saved only by the intervention of G-d. (Kedushin 81a).

The Talmud refers to sin as due to temporary insanity (Sotah 3a). Thus, just as we are powerless to resist the temptation to sin without G-d’s help, so the alcoholic is powerless to resist the temptation to drink, and only a Power greater than oneself (which we define as G-d) can prevent the insane behavior.

Step #3

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understood Him.

The phrase “G-d as we understood Him” has been a source of confusion. It was meant to avoid reference to the deity of any religion. The Jew should say, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Hashem.” This step expresses two Torah concepts. (1) Set aside your own will in favor of the will of Hashem (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4) and (2) “Cast upon G-d your burden, and He will sustain you” (Psalms 55:23).

Step #4

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

All sifrei mussar repeatedly stress the importance of chesbon hanefesh, a personal accounting which could not be expressed any better than “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This must indeed be fearless, because it takes great courage to honestly search oneself and confront parts of our character and personality whose existence we may be reluctant to acknowledge.

In doing a moral inventory, we must list our assets as well as our liabilities, our merits as well as our faults, because only this way can we achieve a true self-awareness. The mussar authority, Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz said that if a person is unaware of one’s faults, one does not know what one must correct. However, a person who is unaware of one’s character strengths is even in a more sorry state, because one is unaware of the tools one has to live a proper life.

Step #5

Admitted to G-d, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

This step has been misconstrued as being the Catholic confession. This is not so. In his guide to proper living, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk says that a person should avail oneself of a trusted friend, to whom one can admit everything has done, and even the objectionable thoughts and desires one has harbored. Verbalizing these breaks the hold of the yetzer hara.

Step #6

Were entirely ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character.

Step #7

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

We generally can control our behavior, but we may have little or no control over some of our feelings. It is evident from the Talmud that we are born with some character traits, some of which we can sublimate and redirect to positive goals. We may not, by our own efforts, be able to extirpate some undesirable traits.

The saintly Chafetz Chaim was known to pray tearfully at the Ark of the Torah that G-d relieve him of his feelings of anger. The Chafetz Chaim never exhibited anger, because he was in control of his behavior, but he could not eliminate feeling angry, and he prayed that G-d remove these.

Obviously, we must do our homework to rid ourselves of objectionable traits, and this is how one becomes “ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character.” Once one has done whatever is within one’s power, one can then “ask G-d to remove our shortcomings.”

Step #8

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step #9

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The Talmud says that whereas a person’s sins are forgiven on Yom Kippur, this does not apply to offenses committed against another person. Divine forgiveness is granted only if one has genuinely sought forgiveness from the person one harmed or offended.

It is of interest that there is a difference of opinion between ethicists whether a person should seek to make amends if doing so would be displeasing to the victim. A man asked me to forgive him for having spread a bad rumor about me. I did forgive him, but I wished that he had not told me about this, because now I was worried about what bad rumors might be circulating about me.

In such cases, Rabbi Yisrael of Salant said that one would be better off not asking for forgiveness, because this aggravates the person. The Chafetz Chaim, however, said that one must ask forgiveness nevertheless. I was amused that Bill Wilson had gravitated to the opinion of Rabbi Yisrael of Salant.

Step #10

Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

In Alei Shur, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe says that one should carry a notebook and record occurrences of a moral or ethical nature, and review them at the end of the day.

One cannot emphasize strongly enough “when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” The natural tendency is to defend a mistake and rationalize it. This is a gross error. Recent political events have proven that “cover-ups” do not work. One will have much better results if one overcomes the tendency to defend a mistake, and admit it promptly.

Step #11

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious with G-d, praying only for knowledge of His will and the power to carry it out.

The mussar and Chassidic literature is replete with this principle.

Step #12

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.

Torah teaches us that we have a duty of arvus, of mutual responsibility for one another. There is a Scriptural mitzvah of tochacha, of giving reproof for improper behavior. Indeed, if one has the possibility of positively influencing another person and fails to do so, one is held responsible for the other person’s misdeeds.

The Talmud says that there is one verse on which all of Torah depends: “Know G-d in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), Torah rejects the idea “Give unto G-d that which is His and unto Caesar that which is his.” We do not have two standards, one for religion and the other for the secular. We are required to practice the principles of Torah “in all our affairs.”

My book, Self-Improvement? I’m Jewish, was written at the request of a recovering alcoholic who wanted a program based on mussar. At the end of the book, I cited the 12-steps, pointing out that they essentially comprise a program based on mussar.


  1. Steps 3, 6, and 7 presume it's Hashem's job to fix us. That we are incapable of fixing ourselves, that all we can do is turn to Him to do so. It speaks the Xian language of salvation through faith, rather than the Jewish language of man's task in life to work toward redemption. Yes, we can't succeed without Hashem's help -- but we "own" the job, Hashem assists. "All is in control of heaven except fear/awe of heaven." We aren't supposed to relinquish control of that.


  2. I think that you are misunderstanding the steps. It is not that it is Hashems's job to fix us, it is our job to fix ourselves. It is just that we can not do it alone. We have to daven for Hashem to help us. If you take a look at the article I wrote, "Perscription for a miracle" (link on the right from the picture of a perscription) I talk about learning to be a partner with Hashem. not waiting for a miracle to happen, but being proactive. Tp me the essense of the steps is taking action to change your life for the better with help from Hashem.

  3. Tiao: you're describing the first to steps, when you speak about asking for Hashem's help only in things that are beyond our control. Things Rav Dessler would call beyond our "bechirah point".

    (Personally, I find "well beyond my bechirah point" a very helpful definition of addiction.)

    But in steps 6&7 we are asked to relinquish responsibility for correcting our middos. Whatever work one does at this point in the 12 Steps is to help G-d reassume control of my "fear/awe of heaven", not to do it ourselves -- asking Him to help us.


  4. Rav Dessler uses the analogy of a battlefield and he talks about conquering ground and moving on. The problem is when we never believe that we have truly conquered that ground and we are constantly fighting our Yetzer Hara for the same piece of terf. In OA we learn that with the help of Hashem we can move our Bechirah point beyond what we had assumed was the limit of our ability to change. I am helping someone now who is struggling and her Rav told her that her problem is that she is trying to do it alone. She has to accept that it is only through Tefilah and reliance on Hashem that she can move forward through the steps.

  5. You don't hear the huge size of the difference between "hav[ing] G-d remove all these defects of character" and "remov[ing] our shortcomings" and asking Him to help us do so?

    Its the difference between the Notzri notion of salvation through faith and dependence on Yeishu, and the notion of teshuvah, mitzvos, and "מִפִּי עֶלְיוֹן לֹא תֵצֵא, הָרָעוֹת וְהַטּוֹב. מַה יִּתְאוֹנֵן אָדָם חָי, גֶּבֶר עַל-חֲטָאָו." (Eikhah 3:28-29)

    The only way I can think of engaging in 12 Step programming without invoking such problems would be to make a transvaluation of "Higher Power" as great as the Big Book advises atheists.

    In Yahadus the Higher Power that redeems souls is not Hashem alone, it is the beris between us and the Aibishter.

    The difference, albeit subtle, is arguably between Torah and avodah zara -- with all that implies for true redemption.


  6. My husband spoke to our Rav and he said that this program is saving my life, I should view it as pikuach nefesh. I have lost 79 pounds and Hashem has reversed many life threatening illnesses because of this. I spoke to Rebbetzin Kalmonovitz about the 12 steps and she said that they are acceptable. If you are uncomfortable with their interpretation you can use your own, but there is a power of healing in the 12 steps that is a gift from Hashem. I started this blog becasue I wanted to draw inspiration from Torah sources and not goyish sources, but I am extremely grateful for the changes in my life since I began OA.
    Each person has to ask their own Rav.

  7. ... and must be sure their rav actually knows the metzi'us of the 12 Steps, as well as knowing the dinim of avodah zara. Far too many rabbanim who would call a specialist when it comes to kashrus or eruv are perfectly willing to pasqen questions of emunah without ever having learned Emunos veDei'os, Moreh Nevukhim, the Kuzari, Chovos haLvavos probably yes -- but not the first sha'ar, Milkhemes Hashem, kisvei Maharal, the Tanya, Even Sheleimah, all four she'arim of Nefesh haChaim, Horeb, Meshekh Chokhmah, etc, etc, etc...

    I gave a relatively straightforward workaround.

    I also wonder why someone would work the 12 Steps rather than founding / joining a group that works the Mesilas Yesharim's 9. Perishus and Neqi'us deal directly with addiction. IOW, why use something adopted from the Oxford Group when you can turn to your own mesorah?

    Would you join a group that practices eastern meditation, even if the group stripped out all the idols' names from the mantras?


  8. I have been part of a group learning mussar seforim for over 8 years now. We learned Ramchal, Rav Dessler, Rav Shimshion Pinchus, and others. I have grown a lot from it, but I was still killing myself with food.

    I spoke to Rebbetzin Heller about the 12 steps and she said that she went with someone to a Godol in EY (I am not sure if I can say who). They discussed it in depth and he gave rushus for it, but not for casual use, only if there is a real need.

    You have a right to reject it for yourself, but I have a right to follow the Daas Torah that I consulted and to use them to save my life.

  9. You're learning Mussar sefarim. Fantastic. But realize that Mussar isn't a "study", it's the approach that Torah is a Program.

    You didn't get "da'as Torah", you got second hand info from a gadol you don't even remember the name of.

    And as I wrote, I didn't reject 12 Step programming as much as

    1- Reject the identification of the "higher power that redeems" with Hashem, rather than Judaism's focus on redemption through the beris.

    I intentionally did not post with the notion of shaking someone from a program that is working for them. I instead posted the subtle changes that are necessary to better adapt something originally designed by Notzrim to a Torah-based worldview.

    2- I lament the fact that hundreds of Orthodox Jews are willing to invest the time and effort to follow some outsiders' spirituality, but won't join ve'adim and invest the same effort on a mesorah-dik one.


  10. I did not say that I can not remember who, I said that I do not have rushus to quote him.

    I did ask Das Torah, I asked my Rav when I started.


Related Posts with Thumbnails