Criticism of 12 Steps? Rabbi Twerski responds.

by Twerski, Rabbi Dr. Avraham (See all authors)

I read the article you sent me by this Rabbi criticizing the 12-step program. Rather than responding to each point, I would like to discuss a broader issue.

Sexual addiction and pornography are now epidemic, even among frum people, and are destroying families. The following communications show the caliber of people who are being affected.

“I’m a 21 year old yeshiva bachur. I went to prominent American yeshivos all my life and am now learning in a famous yeshiva gedola in Eretz Yisrael. Modesty aside, I was at the top of my classes and shiurim, widely respected by my friends and rebbeim. I planned to learn many years and go into chinuch. I would find a perfect shidduch quickly, some Rosh Yeshiva’s daughter, raise a beautiful family, and spread nachas all around. A perfect life awaited; I was the frum community’s model son. As far as anybody knows, all this is still true.

When I was in the first year of beis medrash, my parents brought the internet into our home, and my secret life began. To condense the story, I was quickly hooked on devarim assurim. (Let’s not kid ourselves. Like every person on this planet, I was always curious, and all the blockers my parents set up fell away quickly, without their knowledge.) Like any person that becomes addicted to something, I quit many times, once for a whole year, for months, many times, I buried my head in the Torah to save myself as best I could. But it always came back. Going against everything I’d ever learned, I continued. I slowly trained myself to shut G-d out whenever I wanted to. That led me to more aveiros, rachmana litzlan.

Another letter:

“ I was a heimishe, chassidishe yeshiva bachur that belonged to a chassidus, and put on a shtreimel by my wedding. I knew that my behaviors were completely prohibited according to the Torah and this caused me terrible emotional pain and made feel like a hypocrite leading a double life. To thwart these behaviors, I davened, I learned, I cried. I gave tzedaka, I went to mikveh, I fasted, I pleaded to Hashem. I went to Kivrei Tzaddikim, I made nedorim and even shevuos. I wrote letters to gedolim asking for help, and many more things. To no avail. I could not stop. It got worse to the point where I was unfaithful to my wife. Gevald! After promising myself to stop after each bout and continuously slipping, I gave up on everything and lived internally a not-religious life with an exterior image of a heimishe chasid. I was even thinking of leaving my family and Yiddishkeit completely.

I was introduced to 12-step support groups, dealing specifically with these issues. I felt I was not alone. Others suffer from this problem. I listened to what these people were saying and doing in order not to fall back into old behaviors.

Today, after a nice few years in these support groups, I am still married to the same person; we have a wonderful relationship. My Yiddishkeit and chasssidus is real, not external. My Rebbe, a tzaddik and leader of a chassidus, knows what I went through and encouraged me to go to these support groups. I am grateful to Hashem for every moment of recovery I have today.”

It is easy to be critical of anything, including the 12-step meetings. Rashi (Shemos 18:1) praises Yisro for saying veatta secheze ( Shemos 18:21), whereby he suggested to Moshe Rabeinu to set up a judicial hierarchy. Likutei Yehoshua asks, “Why does Rashi not mention Yisro’s earlier remarks, (Shemos 18: 18), where he said to Moshe, “What you are doing is not good?” He answers, that anyone can criticize. Yisro is praised for suggesting a solution, not for criticizing.

These letters are typical of what we find with frum young men, “bnei Torah,” who have fallen into the trap of sex addiction. To me, the most vexing question is, “What went wrong?”

I have said that if I had to develop a recovery program based on mussar, it would be, word for word, the 12 steps. Why then, did bnei Torah who learned mussar, become sex addicts, and why do they recover with the 12-step program?

The Talmud relates that the students of R’ Yohanan ben Zakai came to visit him before his death, and requested a beracha. R’ Yohanan said, “May your fear of Hashem be as great as your fear of other people.” The students were taken aback. “Is that all you can tell us?” R’ Yohanan said, “Yes. A person will refrain from doing something improper if he thinks someone may see him, but is not stopped by the fact that Hashem sees him.”

Students of R’ Yohnan ben Zakai were great Torah scholars, yet they were derelict in yiras shamayim.

There were always purveyors of shmutz, but a decent person would not risk being seen in one of these places. However, in the privacy of their home or office, or of their hand-held screen, they are not deterred from watching pornography by the fact that Hashem sees them. The current pornography epidemic, affecting some yeshiva and kollel students, who are otherwise observant of mitzvos, indicates a serious lack of yiras shamayim.

After stating the centrality of ahavas and yiras Hashem, Rambam asks, “How is this to be achieved? He answers, “If a person will contemplate the great and wondrous works of Hashem, he will come to appreciate His infinite wisdom, and this will result in his desire to know Hashem, which will lead to ahavas and yiras Hashem.”

Where is Rambam’s suggestion implemented? Where are Torah students apprised of the wonders of creation? King David devoted Psalm 104 to the wonders of creation. The prophet Isaiah said, “Raise your eyes on high and see Who created these.” Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of Hashem, and the firmament tells of His handiwork.”

I suggested to a mechanech in Israel to get National Geographic videos and show the students the beauty of Hashem’s work, and to bring in lecturers who can tell the students the mind-boggling intricacies of creation. He recently told me that this has had a major impact on his students learning and attitude.

Mussar is powerful and potent, and it would certainly be effective if it were learned the way it was intended to be learned. Rebbe Yisrael Salant said that mussar must be learned with hispaalus, with an intense emotional quality that a person feels it has made a change in oneself. An intellectual knowledge of mussar does not accomplish much.

We have an intellectual knowledge of aveira goreres aveira, but it is only an intellectual awareness. A recovering alcoholic was at a party and was served punch. With the first swallow, he realized that the punch had been “spiked.” He called me in a panic. He knew that even an accidental swallow of a small amount of alcohol could trigger a relapse. “What should I do?” he asked. “Should I put myself in the hospital? I don’t want to lose my wife and my job!” To him, aveira goreres aveira is real. An accidental swallow of a tiny bit of alcohol can lead to his destruction.

If a frum person said or heard lashon hara, does he call his Rav in a panic? “What should I do? I did an aveira! I’m afraid that this could lead to other aveiros! I could end up, chalila, being mechalel Shabbos or eating treife.” He doesn’t do this because aveira goreres aveira are just words

When a person who is sincere in recovery leaves a 12-step meeting, he has the feeling, “If I deviate from this program, I will die.” When a person leaves a mussar shiur, does he have the feeling that if he neglects to follow the teaching of mussar he will die?

Yes, if one learns and practices mussar the way R’ Yisrael Salant did, it will be effective.

It is naïve to assume that one can get yiras shamayim by performing the mitzvos. Listen to what Moshe Rabeinu says:

“Now, O Israel, what does Hashem, your G-d, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, to go in all His ways (middos) and to love Him, and to serve Hashem with all your heart and with all your soul. To observe the mitzvos of Hashem…” (Devarim 10:12).

Note that Moshe Rabeinu placed yiras shamayim and middos before performance of mitzvos.

Sexual addiction is a deadly cancer that is a serious threat to the survival of Yiddishkeit. The Satan has the internet as a powerful weapon. Torah leaders must concentrate their efforts on how to instill yiras shamayim in “frum” people, and how to repel the yetzer hara. Whatever is being done at present is not sufficient.