October 2008

How Does the Twelve-Step Program Conform with Me Being Frum?

I fail to understand how the program conforms with me being frum. Let me explain: When I overcome any type of yetzer hara, I become closer to Hashem and gain sechar in Olam HaBa; the same is true when I work on my middos, and definitely when I fight my desires. I am not working on my lust addiction purely as a physiological problem, as a non-Jew would, but as a frum Jew trying to do Hashem’s will.
When I’m working with the Twelve-Step Program, espe- cially if I end up with a non-Jewish sponsor, I will not be work- ing on my problem as a Jew. I feel it’s like if I were having a problem with my emunah in Hashem, or my davening needed chizzuk, and I went to a Christian support group giving chizzuk in our belief in God and praying. We would really be discussing two separate gods (I as a Jew and they as Christians).

Years ago, a person in recovery requested that I develop a recovery program based on our sifrei mussar. I wrote the book Self-Improvement? I’m Jewish! which is such a program. At the end of the book I say, “Now turn the page and read the Twelve Steps.” The two are essentially identical. However, instead of the phrase “God, as I understand Him,” we would say Hashem.

A non-Jewish sponsor can guide you through working the steps, but any issue involving Yiddishkeit should be taken up with a rav who understands the Twelve-Step Program. The sponsor is not providing chizzuk in emunah but may show you how to put your emunah to use. In JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) there are a number of chareidi Jews who have no problem following the Twelve-Step Program. Obviously, in forming a circle, one should not hold hands with a woman. One can station oneself between two men.

There are a few important differences between the Twelve Steps and a mussar shiur:

  • I have attended many mussar shiurim. Everybody un- derstands the importance of mussar, but I doubt if many people walk away with the feeling, “If I deviate from this, I’m dead!” A person sincere in recovery realizes that his very life depends on following the program — not theoretically, but very practically. If people were to accept mussar that way, it would work.
  • No one in any mussar shiur I attended has ever spoken up and said, “I tried to do things my way, and I fell right back into my old ways.” That helps bring home the message that one’s life depends on following the program.
  • Idon’trecallanyoneinamussarshiurbeingsotouchedthat they began to cry. It happens often in the Twelve-Step Program.
  • Nooneinamussarshiursharesstrength,hope,andcourage.

These things are what makes the difference.

Why Can’t I Find a Single Mussar Sefer That Talks about Addiction?

Why can’t I find a single mussar sefer that talks about the concept of addiction? Yes, you will probably find certain ideas in sefarim that match the concepts of the Twelve Steps, maybe even addic- tion, but the idea of being struck with a disease is clearly just not out there in mussar sefarim. Chazal understood the human mind and the yetzer hara much better than any psychologist, but the sefarim only talk about the old-fashioned way of just not doing aveiros and holding yourself back; there are no Twelve Steps, diseases, or methods in the words of Chazal.

In the phone conference, I heard you talk about the fact that you found all of the Twelve Steps in Shaarei Teshuvah and the Rambam, and I actually looked them up, but they definitely do not clearly give you these tools and they don’t mention the concept of addiction.

It really bothers me that, as a frum Jew, I can’t find salvation in the Torah but have to turn to modern psychology for new ideas, and to the Twelve-Step Program, a concept indirectly (or directly) related to Christianity — as if Judaism does not cater to this type or strength of a yetzer hara.

In my meager knowledge of the sifrei mussar, I have not found a

structured method on addiction, although the principles are all there. I surmise that the widespread addictive use of drugs did not exist when the sifrei mussar were written. Actually, the epidemic of drug use in the secular world is a rather recent (twentieth- century) phenomenon, or at least if drug addiction did exist, it was well concealed. Alcohol use was more common, yet never

reached its current proportions.
The aphorism “shikker vi a goy” (drunk as a gentile) is no

longer valid, but I suspect that in earlier days, the opprobrium of shikker was so intense that it suppressed addictive use of alcohol. There were a few drunkards who were social outcasts. Alcoholism as we know it — i.e., functioning alcoholics — may have existed in greater numbers, but this too was concealed.

Obviously the incidence of excessive drinking among Jews has increased. As recently as fifty years ago, country clubs did not take on Jewish weddings or bar mitzvahs, because they make their money on alcohol rather than on food. Today they actively solicit Jewish events.

Whereas forbidden activity certainly occurred, I doubt that the phenomenon of lust addiction was ever brought to the atten- tion of the authors of sifrei mussar.

How Does “Turning Our Will over to God” Work?

I have read books and a lot online on the Twelve-Step Program. The two main recovery components of the Twelve-Step Program are group support, which I could definitely benefit from, and Steps One, Two, and Three, in which we realize we are powerless, realize only God can help, and we turn over our will to God. Can you explain how this works? I am sitting in front of my computer with an enormous urge to commit aveiros — how do I suddenly turn over my will to God, and how does it help? Is it in the mind? What changes in this situation that all of a sudden I can control myself?

It is of great interest that the Twelve-Step Program requires “practicing these principles in all our affairs.” One cannot isolate alcohol, drugs, or lust and address only these behaviors. The program requires a comprehensive moral inventory and a sin- cere attempt at eliminating one’s character defects. Successful recovery requires an overhaul of one’s character.

One AA speaker, on the occasion of his twentieth anniversa- ry of sobriety, began with, “The man I once was drank, and the man I once was will drink again.” Successful recovery requires emergence of a new person.

The Talmud says that a single verse that encapsulates the entire Torah is “Know God in all your ways” (Mishlei 3:6). All authorities, from Rambam down, explain that not only must one observe the mitzvos of the Torah, but all one’s actions should be “Torahdig.” A person who indulges in everything that the Torah permits is referred to as “a vulgar person within the confines of Torah law” (Ramban, Vayikra 19:2). Just as it is a violation of Torah to eat chazzer, it is also a violation to eat strictly kosher food like a chazzer. A person is required to eat Torahdig, sleep Torahdig, transact Torahdig, and cohabit Torahdig.

Turning over one’s will to the will of Hashem cannot be exercised when one is faced with temptation. From the time one awakes until one retires, one must live Torahdig. Just dressing chareidi and wearing a beard chareidi and even davening chareidi do not yet constitute a Torahdig lifestyle and will not discourage addiction.

It is not easy to turn all of one’s life over to Hashem, but this is what the Twelve-Step Program requires and what Torah requires. “Half measures avail us nothing,” and for that matter, ninety-five-percent measures also avail us nothing. “Know God in all your ways.”

Can One Work the Twelve Steps without the Meetings?

Will working the Twelve Steps by myself (with books, online material, etc.) without going to meetings work? Or if I find an- other way of group support (a partner or the website) without using the Twelve Steps, will that work? Is it worth a try?

Group support is vital. Let’s compare it to tefillah, which should be b’tzibbur. The sefarim say that davening with a min- yan with little kavanah is superior to davening alone with much kavanah. In practice, failure to attend meetings is generally un- successful. If you are not going to use the Twelve Steps, what are you going to use? As was pointed out above, a mussar approach is very similar to the Twelve Steps.

Won’t I Learn Worse Things in the Meetings?

As of today, baruch Hashem, my only problem is mainly viewing inappropriate material. I am concerned that hearing women speak at the meetings about their experiences will give me too many ideas and lure me into beginning to explore those ideas. Also, I have heard that people attending the Twelve Steps sometimes get into uncomfortable situations hearing other women talk about their problems. (I heard of a guy who approached a woman at the meeting, dunno if it’s true.) This concerns me too.

There is indeed the risk of “crazy house romances.” Attending single-gender meetings on lust addiction is most advisable.

There is also a risk of exploring the ideas one may hear. There are deaths due to antibiotics or surgery, yet this risk does not stop people from availing themselves of the most effective medical treatment.

What If Someone Recognizes Me?

I am afraid of being seen or recognized. Let’s face it, disease or not, it’s frowned upon, and people (especially in the frum community) do judge. This is something I am willing to compromise on, and I realize I need to, but I would like to hear your perspective on this.

The fear of being recognized is understandable, but the only people who will recognize you are those who have your problem. Your secret is their secret. It is highly unlikely that one will tell a friend, “Guess who I saw at an SA meeting.”

Addictions are usually progressive. Physicians who resisted attending AA or NA meetings for fear of being recognized are almost invariably exposed when their loss of control leads to behavior that is a public disclosure in a far worse way. I believe this is also true of lust addiction.

Can a Man Sponsor a Woman in the Twelve-Step Program?

It is not advisable for a man to sponsor a woman, even if he has strong recovery. The yetzer hara is powerful enough to make this a source of trouble. Sponsors and sponsees should be of the same gender.