Mussar & the 12-Steps

Part 1/5 (to see other parts of the article, click on the pages at the bottom)

Rabbi Twerski shared with me today an article that he wrote for the website www.TorahWeb.org. It describes beautifully how the 12-Steps are derived from Torah principles, and it gives a clear summary of the 12-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 behavior to that of alcoholics, e.g. "they were drunk, albeit not with wine; they staggered, albeit not with ale" (Isaiah 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 psychological defense mechanisms that people use for committing a sin are similar to those used by the alcoholic.

Mussar begins with Moshe Rabenu, and is followed up in the Talmud. It is expanded by the classical sifre mussar, namely Reishis Chochma, Chovas Halevavos, Orchos Tzaddikim and Mesilas Yesharim. Rebbe Yisrael of Salant established the school of mussar, requiring formal courses on the subject, and his disciples greatly enriched the field. Contemporary mussar works, Michtav Eliyahu by Harav Dessler and Alei Shur by Harav 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 generally private affairs. We are not privy to what mistakes people have made, what are their character defects, and what techniques they have used to improve themselves. In 40 years of working with alcoholics, I have had the opportunity to observe how people can successfully change their errant behavior.

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 an inherent 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.