Yiddishkeit and 12 Steps: The Rabbi's Opinion
Realizing that just drying-out someone was not enough, and that few people after detox went to AA, I militated for a rehab, and together with St. Francis Hospital, we opened Gateway Rehab Center in 1972.
Addiction is a disease and treatment is necessary to bring a person to health. The 12-step program can bring a person to health. But is it enough to be just healthy? Yiddishkeit teaches that a person must have a purpose in life. Addiction makes it impossible to reach a purpose, but overcoming the addiction is not an ultimate purpose in life. If a person has a serious physical illness, he certainly must be treated, but if he recovers, is that all there is to life?
Yiddishkeit teaches that a person has a mission in life. The first chapter in Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just) is “Man’s Obligation in His World.”
Having studied much mussar, I felt that Bill Wilson plagiarized mussar in developing the 12-step program. In my book, Self Improvement? I’m Jewish, I show the essential identity of the 12-steps and mussar.
Why is it that some “frum” people, even if they were well-versed in Torah and mussar fell into the trap of addiction and recovered with the 12-step program, whereas mussar did not help them? I think the answer is simple. A person who is sincere in recovery leaves a 12-step meeting with the knowledge and feeling, “If I deviate from this program, I will die.” In our davening we say, “ki heim chayenu” that Torah and mitzvos are our very life, but while we say this, I doubt that many people actually feel, “If I deviate from mussar, I will die.”
An example: An alcoholic came to rehab because his employer gave him a last chance: one more drunk and he’s fired. He was deathly afraid of losing his job. He attended AA regularly. When he was 8 months sober, he called me in a panic. He had attended a friend’s daughter’s graduation party, and the friend offered him a drink, which he refused, but did accept a glass of punch. After one swallow he realized that the punch was spiked. He called me in a panic. “What should I do, Doc? I accidentally swallowed some alcohol. Should I put myself in the hospital? I’m afraid I’ll end up in a drunk!” I told him to call his sponsor and get to a meeting.
Now let’s look at this case. A frum person has been enjoying a particular candy bar for years. This time, he was playing around with the wrapper and noticed that the hechsher symbol was gone. If the hechsher was removed, it was because they had added a non-kosher ingredient. He feels badly that he might have eaten something non-kosher, but does he call his rabbi in a panic? “Rabbi, I think I might have eaten something treife! What should I do? I’m afraid that this might lead me to eating pork on Yom Kippur!” You see, the addict knows that even an accidental slip can be fatal. The frum person may have learned that “sin begets sin,” but does not believe it the way a recovering addict does.
A recovering person may find the conviction in the 12-step program to be more intense and have greater sincerity than he experienced in Yiddishkeit. The response to this should not be to relinquish Yiddishkeit, but rather to increase his knowledge and understanding of Yiddishkeit, and to practice it with feeling rather than as routine.