Twelve Step Programs

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  1. Bruce Zuckerman says:

    Your February 24 session on Twelve Step programs was forwarded to me by my spiritual guide with the generous thought that it may be of interest to me, and that I might be able to provide some perspective on the points discussed. Part of my reply to her was that I was not comfortable due to the amount of Hebrew with which I was unfamiliar, as well as my concern that my Mussar is a little “rusty.” She responded that I could still comment, but put forth these two disclaimers. So, I’ve decided to do just that.

    I have been an active member of AA for over 21 years of continuous sobriety. I have chosen to believe there was a divine intervention that graced my life when, without any prior experience, recommendation or interest, one night I went to an AA meeting. I continue to participate in AA and utilize the 12 Steps as part of my life. And I believe that without the path I began in AA, I would never have be on the spiritual journey that I continue today. I was virtually an agnostic when I began, and without hesitation admitted I did not identify myself as Jewish. Today, I proudly identify myself as a Jewish, and albeit slowly, pursue learning about the faith that for so many years I rejected.

    I provide this personal background to simply say the 12 Steps mean many different things to different people. As with any text, be it secular or spiritual, interpretations vary widely. What I say here is nothing more than my interpretation based upon my experiences. I would hope it may have some value to someone else, but that I cannot expect.

    Your discussion of Higher Power was meaningful to me. I must admit I had to Google a few of your Hebrew terms, and then appreciated your use of them! Like many spiritual disciplines and/or religions, AA uses several words to describe “god” throughout its primary text. Although the term Higher Power is not literally used in any of the specific 12 Steps, certainly its use is common within the overall program.
    Many people who come into AA have difficulty hearing ANY use of a deity. However, many feel compelled to stay, by either internal or external forces, because they have accepted the 1st Step, which makes no mention of a deity. And thus begins a path to sobriety for millions of alcoholics. Some discover a Higher Power, some do not. Still, AA is there for them to maintain what is described as our “Primary Purpose” in the Preamble of AA: to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

    I do not regularly focus on literal interpretations of any doctrine, but I would like take a few quotes out of context in the book Alcoholics Anonymous to address several of your comments. I have never been aware of the use of being “saved” within AA. The use of the term “recovered” describes the the change from a “hopeless state of mind and body” but not the disease (which is a term we do use) of alcoholism. In fact, later in the Book the statement “We are not cured of alcoholism” supports why we remain perpetually in recovery. I am aware of few Jewish teachings, but I have read many short daily spiritual lessons using stories wherein King David believed he could trust his life to Hashem when faced with apparently certain defeat or death. Although none of us can truly guarantee what that means, it may not be much different than an alcoholic having faith that his recovery is aided by a power greater than himself.

    I admit the idea of relying upon a sponsor has a connotation of needing to be saved by someone. The concept’s origin was simply to have one individual in AA helping someone who was new to AA get through the early days/weeks of sobriety by utilizing the 12 Steps. It was not promoted as a superior/subordinate relationship, nor was the sponsor ever the recommended “power greater than oneself.” In reality, there are as many different sponsor/sponsee relationships as there are individuals in AA. The recommendation to work with a sponsor remains part of the foundation of common practices that have developed as AA has grown worldwide. Still, I return to the first few words of the text introducing the 12 Steps which “are suggested as a program of recovery.” There is no specific recommendation or definition implying a sponsor being anything more than another alcoholic, and in no literature is it anything more than provided as a tool which can be of assistance in recovery.

    I cannot contest any of the words that are used in Step 7, for they are exactly as you presented them. But, in the text portion which provides some small elaboration on Step 7, a prayer is presented as a suggestion for initial completion of the Step. Within part of that brief prayer it says “I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows” The goal is to become a person who is willing to try to become better able to be of service to god and others. And yes, it does promote asking for help to do that from god. I accept one could argue it sounds passive, and in Step 6 it says to become ready to have god remove all these defects of character again supports an image of something being taken out of us, almost lie a bolt from above. More realistic might be an image of one believing that by becoming willing to improve one’s behavior, one may be granted the grace of spiritual support from a higher power. One saying goes “we think it better to act our way to right thinking, than to think our way to right action.” I think it is also commonly expressed in AA that as humans, what may be perceived as a defect of character may also be a strong personal asset. We try to learn how best to apply them to be of service to god and others. I would say this is not an uncommon duality in many spiritual teachings. There is an all too frequently told joke in AA that goes something like : when you are in a canoe, and the powerful rapids have taken control of your boat, carrying you to certain problems going over a waterfall, you certainly might pray to god for help, but it is highly suggested that you row toward shore! We can ask for help but we must be responsible for taking appropriate actions.

    I thank you for the opportunity to engage in this open forum.

    Bruce Zuckerman

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