As a rabbi, I have been asked time and again if there is anything about The Twelve Steps that is “objectionable” from a Jewish theological perspective. The easy answer would be to say that The Twelve Steps espouse no particular theological beliefs and are, as such, compatible with all spiritual paths. But that’s not the answer I give. The Steps, although replete with the qualifier, “G-d of our understanding,” do make, or at least imply certain ideas about G-d.
Therefore, the answer that I give when asked about the compatibility of Jewish belief and The Twelve Steps is that not only is there nothing in The Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective but that The Steps can help Jews better understand their own G-d. The Steps, in their clear and simple language, marvelously communicate certain truths in which we as Jews are already enjoined to believe.
Twelve Steps Theology
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 just part of the disease. Every addict – irrespective of his or her drug of choice – possesses a sense of “terminal uniqueness." Sooner or later, they will always tell you, “But my case is different.”
This presents a special dilemma. The most basic premise of The Twelve Steps is that living according to spiritual principles brings on a reprieve from active addiction. Spirituality is the solution. But if The Twelve Steps were recognizably aligned with 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 absolute inclusiveness and flexibility on all matters pertaining to the particular beliefs of their members.
In recovery circles, one often hears this dichotomy described as the distinction between “spirituality” and “religion.” Religion denotes dogma and articles of faith. Spirituality is a softer, more supple word that leaves itself open for all kinds of interpretation. To wit, there is the often told, though perhaps apocryphal tale of the avowed atheist who upon coming to AA acceded to choose the doorknob as his Higher Power.
It’s understandable why AA and the Twelve Step groups that came along after it must hold a staunchly non-sectarian position on matters of belief. At the same time, however, it would be dishonest to claim that The Steps are devoid of any particular theology. While there is nothing like a list of theological principles where articles of faith are enumerated, a thoughtful reading of The Steps will, however, lead one to conclude that they are indeed based on a distinct theological position.
G-d in the Steps
Following are the Twelve Steps as originally published in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to G-d, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with G-d, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Of the Twelve Steps, only the first mentions alcohol. Four of them (Steps 3,5,6 and 11) explicitly mention G-d and two more of them refer to G-d either as “a Power greater than ourselves” (in Step 2) or with the pronoun “Him” (in Step 7).
Being that six of the Twelve Steps mention G-d, it’s difficult to imagine that they offer absolutely no notion as to who or what this G-d is. And although, as mentioned earlier, it often serves a convenient purpose to pretend that the program takes no distinct theological position, to persist in this assertion is to simply discount the facts.
The Steps don’t just refer to G-d, they tell us about Him. First, they let us know that He is a Power and that this Power is greater than ourselves. G-d is not an idea or an abstraction. He is a force and He is active and this force is mightier 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 2. In other words, right away in the Second Step, we have already been told quite a lot about G-d – not just that He exists but about how He manifests in our lives.
The next Step, in which we are told to turn our will and our lives over to His care, tells us even more about G-d – that He cares. That’s another distinct theological position. One can believe in G-d and not believe that He cares, but this Step tell us, at least implicitly, that He does indeed care. In Step 5 we are told that we can talk to Him; we can speak to Him openly and honestly. In Steps 6 and 7 we are told that G-d can change us and that we can ask Him to do so. In Step 11 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 His will. This, incidentally, also sets forth another very big idea – that He actually has a will. That’s a strong theological statement. G-d has a will. And not only does He have a will, but He has a will for us, things that he specifically desires from the individual.
Far from existing in a theological vacuum or free-for-all, The Steps are actually based on several key premises about G-d. These are not ideas to be taken for granted. They are by no means universal. Not all belief systems 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 coming weeks, we will endeavor – with G-d’s help – to examine all of these and other distinct theological positions of The Steps in greater depth.
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