A Rabbi’s Perspective

In spite of everything we’ve spoken of so far pointing to the universal truths behind the spiritual principles of recovery, I am sure that for many readers the nagging question remains: “Okay, sure, the Twelve Steps aren’t officially Christian, but are they really compatible with my beliefs as a Jew?”

At least, that is how I have heard the question posed to me hundreds of times.

My first answer is that I cannot tell anyone whether the Steps can be reconciled with their personal beliefs, because I don’t know exactly what it is that any one person believes. All I can attempt to do is try to show how the Steps fit—or don’t fit—with Jewish belief, which does not necessarily have to be the same as what the individual asking the question may or may not believe. So, let us establish from the start: I am not trying to tell anyone what to believe—not as a Jew and not as a recovering person. What I can do is look at the Steps from a theological perspective, as a rabbi and a student of the Torah, and offer my best analysis of what the Steps seem to be telling us about their approach to relating to God.

How Jewish Are the Steps?

There’s an easy way to avoid answering this question altogether. That is just to say that since the Steps espouse no particular theological beliefs, they are, as such, compatible with all spiritual paths.

I don’t like that answer.

I don’t think that it’s completely accurate or completely honest. The Steps, although replete with the qualifier, “God of our understanding,” do make, or at least imply, some definite theological assertions. It’s impossible to talk that much about God without having at least some unspoken presuppositions about who exactly this God is.

The answer I usually give is not only that there is nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God. The Steps, in their clear and simple language, marvelously communicate certain truths in which we as Jews are already enjoined to believe. Accordingly, as expressed in the title of this book, the Jew in recovery is often delighted to find that the “God of our understanding” turns out to be the very same as “the God of our fathers.”

At the same time, I humbly try to keep in mind the story of the alcoholic Quaker who, after having sobered up in AA, wrote to Bill Wilson to tell him that the Steps were remarkably consistent with the beliefs he had already gained from his religious background. Wilson responded in a now-published letter (As Bill Sees It, p. 116): “The really amazing fact about AA is that all religions see in our program a resemblance to themselves.”

So, at last, whether the Steps more closely represent one belief system or another is irrelevant. I have no stake in calling the Steps Jewish, even if they strike me as being such. What I do feel is important, however, is to explain my understanding of the Steps in a way that can potentially help Jews feel comfortable, knowing that their recovery through the Twelve Steps does not compromise their Jewishness in any way. This, in many ways, is actually the whole point of this book—to help Jewish addicts find recovery through the Steps.

I am aware of the argument that what I am doing here is unnecessary. There are those who will dismiss the need for a Jewish commentary on recovery because, as they explain, a Jew need not see the Steps as Jewish in order to make use of them. When in need of healing, they say, Judaism enjoins us to use whatever means are effective. Just as a Jew does not require a uniquely Jewish method of treating his or her medical problems, so too a Jew does not need a uniquely Jewish method of recovering from addiction.

The problem with this argument is that the Steps are not your conventional medicine or therapy, even though it would simplify things a great deal if we claimed that they were. The Steps are a prescription for a spiritual way of living. Accordingly, we Jews rightfully wonder whether this spiritual way of life is consistent with our tradition.

What Does “Nondenominational” Really Mean?

At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, allow me to say that addicts are always looking for an excuse not to recover. It’s part of the disease. Every addict—irrespective of his or her drug of choice—possesses a certain nagging sense of what we call “terminal uniqueness.” Eventually, the addict will always claim, “But my case is different.” It’s not so much that addicts are too proud to buy into anything too “mainstream”—although that is certainly a factor. Rather, addicts typically feel so unusual, so special, that they have difficulty believing that anything normal, popular or universal can be of any help to them.

This presents a special dilemma. The premise of Twelve Steps recovery is that living according to basic spiritual principles brings a reprieve from active addiction. Spirituality, as we have discussed previously, is the solution. But if the Twelve Steps were recognizably aligned to any known ideology or set of beliefs, addicts would find an easy excuse for feeling driven away from the program. Thus we see that while Twelve-Step groups are, as a rule, staunchly committed to spiritual principles, they are equally as renowned for their flexibility on all matters pertaining to the particular beliefs of their members. Indeed, one criticism leveled at Twelve-Step fellowships by religiously inclined individuals, both from within the program and outside of it, is the perceived ambiguity as to what beliefs are actually set forth by the spiritual tenets of recovery.

In recovery circles, one often hears this dichotomy described as the distinction that we have noted before, between spirituality and religion. “Religion” denotes dogma and the default acceptance of certain articles of faith, whereas “spirituality” is a softer, suppler word that leaves itself open to all kinds of interpretation. To wit, there is the widely told, though perhaps apocryphal, tale of the agnostic who upon coming to AA decided to choose the doorknob as his Higher Power.

For the reason we have just discussed, it is understandable that AA and the Twelve-Step groups that came after it have held a staunchly nonsectarian position on matters of belief. At the same time, however, it would be dishonest to claim that the Steps are devoid of any theology. While there is nothing like a list of theological principles where tenets of faith are enumerated, a thoughtful reading of the Steps will lead one to conclude that they are indeed based on and espouse a distinct theological position.

In other words, subtlety should not be confused with neutrality. There is a consistent theology to the Twelve Steps, and to pretend otherwise would be to ignore the very Power upon which they draw to facilitate the recovery of the addict.

Of course, the question that now arises is, as we have noted: How is this theology compatible with Judaism?

In the chapters that follow, we will take a deeper look, from a Jewish perspective, at what the Steps are actually saying about God.

The “God Steps”

Four of the Steps (3, 5, 6, and 11) explicitly mention God, and two more of them refer to God indirectly, either as “a Power greater than ourselves” (Step Two) or by the pronoun “Him” (Step Seven).

The use of the word “God” four times throughout the Steps—a work that contains only about two hundred words—constitutes a ubiquitous usage. (Indeed, excluding any pronouns, prepositions, and definite or indefinite articles, God is the most repeated word in the Steps.) As such, it’s difficult to imagine that the Steps do not offer some notion of who or what this God is. Moreover, although, as mentioned earlier, it often serves a convenient purpose to act as if the program takes no distinct theological position, to persist in this assertion is simply to discount the facts.

The Steps don’t just refer to God, they also tell us about Him. First, they let us know that He is a Power, and that this Power is greater than ourselves. God is not an idea or an abstraction. He is a force, and He is active. And this force is more powerful than we are. Further, we are told that this Power can actually do something for us—something quite big. It can “restore us to our sanity.” These are all theological statements, and these are all contained just in Step Two. In other words, right away in the Second Step, we have already been told quite a lot about God—not just that He exists, but also about how He manifests Himself in our lives.

The next Step, in which we are told to turn over our will and our lives to His care, tells us even more about God—He cares. That’s another distinct theological position. One can believe in God and not believe that He cares, but this Step tells us, at least implicitly, that He does indeed care. In Step Five, we are told that we can talk to Him; we can speak to Him openly and honestly about ourselves. In Steps 6 and 7, we are told that God can change us, and that we can ask Him to do so. In Step Eleven, we are told that we can consciously engage Him, and that we can ask Him for knowledge of His will, and the power to carry out this will. This, incidentally, also sets forth another very big idea—God has a will. That’s a strong theological statement. And not only does He have a will, but He has a will for us, things He specifically desires from the individual.

Hence, far from existing in a theological vacuum, the Steps actually convey several key ideas about God. These are not to be taken for granted. They are by no means universal to all systems of belief. Not all theologies hold these views, but the program does. He is a Power; He can affect our lives; He is caring; He has a will.

In the following chapters of this section, we will look at each of these very important ideas about God, how to see them in the Steps, and how they relate to Jewish belief.

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.