Twelve Step Programs
I received the following email:
Micha, is there a problem going to 12 step programs (either for one’s self, or for/with a friend)?
Does the “higher power’ stuff smack of AZ [avodah zara] in any way?
He then wanted to share my reply, which flattered me into thinking others might be interested in my thoughts on the subject. Here was my reply (slightly enhanced):
No, the “Higher Power stuff” is pretty strict monotheism. The question is joining with people to whom it means something trinitarianism. But R’ Sholom Elyashiv looked into it and permitted, even permitting participating in meetings that use the Lord’s Prayer – and joining them in the prayer! (As it says nothing specifically Christian.) I was told this by a rebbe-chaveir who is a JACS rabbi and whose testimony I trust. But I have no idea the details of the she’eilah, ow the question was posed. E.g. how much risk to life factored into the decision? Would Rav Elyashiv have said the same thing about joining Overeaters Anonymous when the person isn’t near heart-failure type morbid obesity? I don’t know, and personally I would want the question re-asked with that context set forth before accepting the existing pesaq in a case that minor.
My own philosophical problems aren’t about monotheism, it’s founded on Christian notions of needing someone else to save you. (This hearkens back to AA’s origins in the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement, and its six steps.) This stands in stark contrast to the Jewish model of redemption. 12-Step is shot through with this notion of needing to be saved, even down to relying on a sponsor, on perpetually in recovery and never recovered (which itself is setting stakes to low IMHO for pragmatic reasons), etc…
In Yahadus, man owns his own redemption. We daven for help, but we don’t expect the Almighty to do the job for us. Some relevant dicta:
- Hakol biYdei Shamayim chutz miYir’as Shamayim — all is in the control of [the One in] heaven, except for the fear/awe of heaven.
- Bederekh she’adam rotzeh leileikh sham molikhin oso — in the way a person goes, so they take him.
- Ein davar omeid lifnei haratzon — nothing stands before the will [to do something]. (This is actually phantom maamar chazal, probably an acharonic rephrasing of the previous. Still , it’s a popular quote among numerous acharonim.)
- Im ein ani li, mi li? — if I am not for myself, who will be for me?
IOW, steps 2 & 3 are within Yahadus (as I understand our religion):
- We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
#2 clearly so — an addiction is something where by definition we need help, something Rav Dessler would say is beyond our “bekhirah point“. #3, is a little iffy, it depends what “turn our will” means.
But step 7 is really a problem for me:
- We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Teshuvah is our job, not His. He bedavka wants people who define ourselves, just as He is Autonomous. Otherwise, Hashem would have just made perfect mal’akhim and been done with it.
However, AA allows for some pretty far stretching of the “Higher Power” concept. E.g. the Big Book has an entire chapter on how Agnostics and Atheists can define it.
So, what if a Jew were to decide that the Higher Power that “could remove all the defects of character” didn’t refer to HQBH, but to the beris He struck with us? I think that would address my problem with the basic Christian overtone of the program. It means accepting that the problem isn’t one I can resolve outside of working together with my Creator together in partnership. It’s not relinquishing ownership of my teshuvah to the One in heaven, and yet it’s not trying to go it by relying on my own strength.
If we say that 12-Step programs taken naively defy Hilell’s “im ein ani li, mi li?” this alternative centers on the next clause, “ukeshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani — but when I rely on myself [alone], what am I?”