Yiddishkeit and 12 Steps: The Rabbi's Opinion
A number of people have raised the issue of the relationship of the 12-step program to Yiddishkeit. Some have indicated that they were “frum” during their active addiction but that they dropped their Yiddishkeit during the program. In order to address these issues, I think I must tell you something about myself. I think that problems may arise because of distortions about both Yiddishkeit and the 12-steps. I gave some autobiography in Generation to Generation and in Gevuros.
I was born into a Chassidic family. My father was a Rebbe in Milwaukee. Our shul was comprised primarily of first-generation Russian immigrants. Having not had any secular education in Russia, and not having access to the professions, they wanted to give their children what they lacked. Consequently, they gave their children a secular education and essentially neglected teaching them Yiddishkeit. I did not have a single Shomer Shabbos friend. My friends were the people in shul, all older than 50. They were wonderful people, sincere in their Yiddishkeit.
I heard many stories about my ancestry, great Talmudic scholars and tzaddikim. These were the models I had to live up to.
I thoroughly enjoyed Yiddishkeit. Shabbos and Yom Tov were delights. I never felt the restrictions of Torah to be a stress. Although I was taught that there was a punishment for aveiros (sins), I never thought that G-d was punitive. Even as a youngster, I felt that the punishment was inherent in the sin. If you put your hand in the fire, the natural consequence was a burn, not a punishment. Sins were detrimental to a person, and the painful consequence of a sin was in the act itself, not a punishment. Yes, G-d may punish, just like a loving father may have to spank a two-year old for running into the street, because the child cannot understand the danger involved. Our intellect, even as mature adults, is limited. We may not be able to understand what is wrong with mixing meat and dairy.
G-d has no needs. The Midrash says that it makes no difference to G-d how an animal is slaughtered. The laws of shechita and all other Torah laws are for the benefit of man, not of G-d. But our limited intellect may not be able to understand why tereife food is harmful to us, and in this respect, we are similar to the two-year old who cannot understand why he cannot run into the street to retrieve his ball, so we have to be warned with a “spanking.” If we can reach the understanding that the Torah laws are not for G-d’s benefit but for our own advantage, we need not worry about punishment.
Fast-forward to age 21, when I became a rabbi in my father’s shul. Some of the old crowd had passed on. Many of the congregants had warm feelings about Yiddishkeit but were not observant. They had their children Bar-mitzvah, followed by a celebration in a treife hotel. I performed weddings which were followed by treife dinners. After three years of this, I knew I could not take this for life, and went to medical school, followed by psychiatric training.
I took the position as medical director of a huge psychiatric hospital, which had a 30-bed alcohol detox unit, better known as the “drunk tank.” Drunks were dried out for several days and were told to go to AA, which very few did, so we ended up being a revolving-door drunk tank.