Rabbi Twerski shared with me an article that he wrote for the website TorahWeb.org in 2010. It describes beautifully how the Twelve Steps are derived from Torah principles, and it gives a clear summary of the Twelve Steps and how they apply to us as frum Jews.
I found it interesting that on several occasions, the prophets reprimanded the people by comparing their errant behav- ior to that of alcoholics — e.g., “They were drunk, albeit
not with wine; they staggered, albeit not with ale” (Yeshayahu 29:9). People sinned, giving in to the temptation for immediate pleasure, ignoring the long-term destructive consequences. This is typical of the alcoholic. All the rationalizations and psycho- logical defense mechanisms that people use for committing a sin are similar to those used by the alcoholic.
Mussar begins with Moshe Rabbeinu and is followed up in the Talmud. It is expanded by the classical sifrei mussar, namely
Reishis Chochmah, Chovos HaLevavos, Orchos Tzaddikim, and Mesilas Yesharim. Rav Yisrael Salanter established the school of mussar, requiring formal courses on the subject, and his dis- ciples greatly enriched the field. Contemporary mussar works, Michtav Mei’Eliyahu by Rav Dessler and Alei Shur by Rav Wolbe are of particular value, since they speak to our generation.
All the suggestions by the mussar authorities are valuable. However, people’s efforts to improve their spirituality are gen- erally private affairs. We are not privy to what mistakes people have made, what their character defects are, and what tech- niques they have used to improve themselves. In forty years of working with alcoholics, I have had the opportunity to observe how people can successfully change their errant behavior.
The Twelve-Step Programs have been a very effective method of overcoming the scourge of a variety of addictions — alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, lust, 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 involve mixed genders, this has been raised as an objection. This is not an inherent fault of the program — it is rather a logistical 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 avail- able 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 Twelve-Step Programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, was the outgrowth of a Christian group.
This is true. However, as we shall see, the content of the Twelve Step programs is not only compatible with Torah but actually seems to have been adopted from Torah sources. I cannot under- stand how the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, had access to concepts that we find in the Talmud and the mussar writings. The fact that they were adopted by a Christian group hardly disqualifies them, just as the Kedushah in the Amidah was not disqualified by its adoption into a Christian prayer.
Some people mistakenly think the Fifth Step is like the Catholic confession. As we will see, it is not. Let us now look at the Twelve Steps.
This is essentially the Talmudic statement (Kiddushin 30b) that one’s yetzer hara increases in strength every day, and were it not for the help of God, one would not be able to withstand it. In other words, without the help of God, 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 they were saved only by the intervention of God (Kiddushin 81a).
The Talmud ascribes sin to temporary insanity (Sotah 3a). Thus, just as we are powerless to resist the temptation to sin without God’s help, so too the alcoholic is powerless to resist the temptation to drink, and only a Power greater than oneself (which we define as God) can prevent the insane behavior.
Our powerlessness over sin is primarily due to two factors.
The overwhelming power of the yetzer hara. This is well described in what I consider a frightening essay by Rav Yerucham Levovitz, “The Land Is Given Over to Evil,” in which he describes the extraordinary powers of the Satan (Daas Chochmah U’Mussar, vol. 2, p. 139). This essay was written in 1928, long before the Satan greatly expanded his already formidable powers by means of the Internet and television!
Our vulnerability to self-deception. Like a judge who takes a bribe, our judgment is seriously compromised by our desires, which are powerful bribes. Rav Dessler addresses this in his es- say on “The Perspective of Truth” (Michtav Mei’Eliyahu, vol. 1).
Without siyatta deShmaya, we are helpless.
The phrase “God 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 (Avos 2:4) and 2) “Cast upon God your burden, and He will sustain you” (Tehillim 55:23).
Moshe Rabbeinu warns us not to assume that we are in con- trol of our fate. “Lest you say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth.’ Then you shall remember Hashem, that it is He Who gives you strength to make wealth” (Devarim 8:17).
All sifrei mussar repeatedly stress the importance of chesh- bon hanefesh, a personal accounting that 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. Shlomo HaMelech says, “Every way of a person is right in his own eyes” (Mishlei 21:2). It is so easy to rationalize and justify our actions.
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 Rav Yerucham 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.
This step has been misconstrued as being the Catholic confession. This is not so. In his guide to proper living, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk says that a person should avail oneself of a trusted friend, to whom one can admit everything he has done, and even the objectionable thoughts and desires one has harbored. Verbalizing these breaks the hold of the yetzer hara.
Private moral offenses should not be aired publicly, but we should share our interpersonal foibles. These are generally due to our acquisitive drives, which lead to envy and dishonesty.
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 God should 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 God remove this.
Obviously, we must do our homework to rid ourselves of objectionable traits, and this is how one becomes “ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” Once one has done whatever is within one’s power, one can then “ask God to remove our shortcomings.”
The Talmud says that while 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, Rav Yisrael Salanter 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 Rav Yisrael Salanter.
“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible.” The latter is an interesting qualification. What can you do when the person whom you offended has moved to another country and there is no way you can find and reach him? Sidduro shel Shabbos says that when you genuinely regret your action and have exhausted every possibility in attempting to personally contact the person you offended, you may assume that Hashem will put it in his heart to forgive you.
In Alei Shur, Rav 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. We may so easily forget things we don’t like to remember, but it is precisely these things that require our attention. Keeping a running cheshbon hanefesh is the best way to identify mistakes and correct them.
One cannot emphasize strongly enough “when we were wrong, we 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 then admits it promptly.
One of the Torah commentaries points out the greatness of the patriarch Avraham. The Torah sharply condemns human sacri- fice: “For everything that is an abomination of Hashem, that He hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters have they burned in the fire for their gods” (Devarim 12:31). For decades Avraham had preached against this pagan worship, stating that God could never desire a human sacrifice.
Now, Avraham understood that Hashem wanted him to sacrifice Yitzchak, and he was actually eager to fulfill the Divine will. But how would he face the scores of people to whom he had so vehemently condemned human sacrifice? He would have to say, “For the past sixty or more years, what I told you was wrong.” Avraham was willing to admit that all his life, he had been wrong. That was the greatness of Avraham.
The mussar and chassidic literature is replete with this principle.
Rather than praying for personal needs, David HaMelech says, “One thing I ask of Hashem, that I shall seek — that I dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life” (Tehillim 27:4). When God appeared to Shlomo HaMelech in a dream and offered to grant him a wish, he asked only for wisdom.
In his fervent Tefillah Kodem HaTefillah (Introductory Prayer), Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk pleads for Divine as- sistance in praying. He closes his prayer with, “If we lack the wisdom to direct our hearts to You, then You teach us that we should know in truth the intention of Your good will.”
Torah teaches us that we have a duty of areivus, of mutual responsibility for one another. There is a Scriptural mitzvah of tochachah, 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 God in all your ways” (Mishlei 3:6). Torah rejects the idea of “Give unto God 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.”
Let me share another insight with you.
Rambam says that true teshuvah is achieved when “Hashem, Who knows the innermost secrets of one’s heart, will testify that the person will never again commit this sin” (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2). Torah commentators ask, “How can the Rambam make that statement? A person always has bechirah, the freedom to do good or to sin. If Hashem testifies that the person will never again commit that sin, then either he loses his bechirah, or Hashem’s testimony was not correct. Neither of these is acceptable.”
I attended a meeting of recovering alcoholics at which the
speaker said, “The man I once was drank, and the man I once was will drink again. If I ever go back to being the man I once was, I will drink again.” Suddenly, the Rambam’s words were clear.
A sin does not occur in a vacuum. A sin occurs when a person is in a spiritual state that allows that sin to occur.
For example, a frum person would not eat treif. He is at a level of Torah observance where eating treif is just not a possi- bility. Let us suppose that he discovered that he inadvertently had spoken lashon hara. He regrets this deeply and resolves, “I must now be more careful with my speech.”
Good teshuvah? No, says the Rambam. Speaking lashon hara is a grievous sin, just as is eating treif. Yet although it was impossible that this person would inadvertently eat treif, it was not impossible for him to inadvertently speak lashon hara. True teshuvah, says the Rambam, is when the person elevates himself to a level of kedushah where inadvertently speaking lashon hara is as impossible as eating treif.
It is, of course, possible that a person may slip from that level of kedushah, in which case he may indeed repeat the act. Thus, Hashem does not testify that the person will never again commit the sin; rather, He is testifying that he has succeeded in attain- ing a level of kedushah, where, at this level, that sin is not a possibility. That is why the Rambam, uncharacteristically, chose to refer to Hashem as He “Who knows the innermost secrets of one’s heart,” i.e., He knows that this person has achieved the level of spirituality.
This why the Rambam continues, that with this kind of teshu- vah, the person can say, “I am no longer the same person that committed that sin” (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:4).