Mussar & the 12-Steps

I found it interesting that on several occasions, the prophets reprimanded the people by comparing their errant behavior to that of alcoholics, e.g. “they were drunk, albeit not with wine; they staggered, albeit not with ale” (Isaiah 29:9). People sinned, giving in to the temptation for immediate pleasure, ignoring the long-term destructive consequences. This is typical of the alcoholic. All the rationalizations and psychological defense mechanisms that people use for committing a sin are similar to those used by the alcoholic.

Mussar begins with Moshe Rabenu, and is followed up in the Talmud. It is expanded by the classical sifre mussar, namely Reishis Chochma, Chovas Halevavos, Orchos Tzaddikim and Mesilas Yesharim. Rebbe Yisrael of Salant established the school of mussar, requiring formal courses on the subject, and his disciples greatly enriched the field. Contemporary mussar works, Michtav Eliyahu by Harav Dessler and Alei Shur by Harav Wolbe are of particular value, since they speak to our generation.

All the suggestions by the mussar authorities are valuable. However, people’s efforts to improve their spirituality are generally private affairs. We are not privy to what mistakes people have made, what are their character defects, and what techniques they have used to improve themselves. In 40 years of working with alcoholics, I have had the opportunity to observe how people can successfully change their errant behavior.

The 12-step programs have been a very effective method of overcoming the scourge of a variety of addictions – alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex – and several others. Some opinions have been voiced regarding the propriety of these programs for Torah-observant Jews, and I’d like to bring some clarity to the issues.

Inasmuch as most of the meetings are of mixed genders, this has been raised as an objection. This is not an inherent fault of the program, but rather a logistic problem, and can be resolved by forming separate meetings for men and women.

Since the majority of meetings are held in church basements or social halls, some feel that these are Christian programs. The sad fact is that very few synagogues have made themselves available to program meetings. Inasmuch as the various addictions have seriously affected many Jews, it would be a mitzvah for synagogues to open their doors to meetings.

It may be argued that the first of the 12-step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, was the outgrowth of a Christian group. This is true. However, as we shall see, the content of the 12-step programs is not only compatible with Torah, but actually seems to have been adopted from Torah sources. I cannot understand how the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, had access to concepts that we find in the Talmud and the mussar writings. The fact hat they were adopted by a Christian group hardly disqualifies them, just as the kedusha in the amidah was not disqualified by its adoption into the Lord’s Prayer.

Some people mistakenly thought the 5th step to be like the Catholic confession. As we will see, it is not. Let us now look at the 12 steps.

Step #1: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step #2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is essentially the Talmudic statement (Kedushin 30b) that one’s yetzer hara (evil inclination) increases in strength every day, and were it not for the help of G-d, one would not be able to withstand it. In other words, without the help of G-d, we are powerless over the yetzer hara. Indeed, the Talmud relates that two of our greatest tzaddikim were tempted by Satan and were actually in the process of submitting to the sin, and were saved only by the intervention of G-d. (Kedushin 81a).

The Talmud refers to sin as due to temporary insanity (Sotah 3a). Thus, just as we are powerless to resist the temptation to sin without G-d’s help, so the alcoholic is powerless to resist the temptation to drink, and only a Power greater than oneself (which we define as G-d) can prevent the insane behavior.

Our powerlessness over sin is primarily due to two factors. (1) The overwhelming power of the yetzer hara. This is well described in what I consider a frightening essay by Rebbe Yeruchem, “The Land is Given Over to Evil,” in which he describes the extraordinary powers of the Satan (Daas Chochama Umussar, vol.2 p.139). This essay was written in 1928, long before Satan greatly expanded his already formidable powers by means of the internet and television!

(2) Our vulnerability to self-deception. Like a judge who takes a bribe, our judgment is seriously compromised by our desires, which are powerful bribes. Harav Dessler addresses this in his essay on “The Perspective of Truth (Michtav M’Eliyahu vol. 1).

Without siyattya dishmaya (Divine assistance) we are helpless.

Step #3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understood Him.

The phrase “G-d as we understood Him” has been a source of confusion. It was meant to avoid reference to the deity of any religion. The Jew should say, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Hashem.” This step expresses two Torah concepts. (1) Set aside your own will in favor of the will of Hashem (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4) and (2) “Cast upon G-d your burden, and He will sustain you” (Psalms 55:23).

Moshe Rabenu warns us not to assume that we are in control of our fate. “Lest you say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth.’ Then you shall remember Hashem, that it is He Who gives you strength to make wealth.” (Deuteronomy 9-17).

Step #4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

All sifrei mussar repeatedly stress the importance of chesbon hanefesh, a personal accounting which could not be expressed any better than “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This must indeed be fearless, because it takes great courage to honestly search oneself and confront parts of our character and personality whose existence we may be reluctant to acknowledge. King Solomon says, “Every way of a person is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). It is so easy to rationalize and justify our actions.

In doing a moral inventory, we must list our assets as well as our liabilities, our merits as well as our faults, because only this way can we achieve a true self-awareness. The mussar authority, Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz said that if a person is unaware of one’s faults, one does not know what one must correct. However, a person who is unaware of one’s character strengths is even in a more sorry state, because one is unaware of the tools one has to live a proper life.

Step #5: Admitted to G-d, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

This step has been misconstrued as being the Catholic confession. This is not so. In his guide to proper living, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk says that a person should avail oneself of a trusted friend, to whom one can admit everything has done, and even the objectionable thoughts and desires one has harbored. Verbalizing these breaks the hold of the yetzer hara.

Private, moral offenses, should not be aired publicly, but we should share our interpersonal foibles. These are generally due to our acquisitive drives which lead to envy and dishonesty.

Step #6: Were entirely ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character.

Step #7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

We generally can control our behavior, but we may have little or no control over some of our feelings. It is evident from the Talmud that we are born with some character traits, some of which we can sublimate and redirect to positive goals. We may not, by our own efforts, be able to extirpate some undesirable traits.

The saintly Chafetz Chaim was known to pray tearfully at the Ark of the Torah that G-d relieve him of his feelings of anger. The Chafetz Chaim never exhibited anger, because he was in control of his behavior, but he could not eliminate feeling angry, and he prayed that G-d remove these.

Obviously, we must do our homework to rid ourselves of objectionable traits, and this is how one becomes “ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character.” Once one has done whatever is within one’s power, one can then “ask G-d to remove our shortcomings.”

Step #8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

The Talmud says that whereas a person’s sins are forgiven on Yom Kippur, this does not apply to offenses committed against another person. Divine forgiveness is granted only if one has genuinely sought forgiveness from the person one harmed or offended.

Step #9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

It is of interest that there is a difference of opinion between ethicists whether a person should seek to make amends if doing so would be displeasing to the victim. A man asked me to forgive him for having spread a bad rumor about me. I did forgive him, but I wished that he had not told me about this, because now I was worried about what bad rumors might be circulating about me.

In such cases, Rabbi Yisrael of Salant said that one would be better off not asking for forgiveness, because this aggravates the person. The Chafetz Chaim, however, said that one must ask forgiveness nevertheless. I was amused that Bill Wilson had gravitated to the opinion of Rabbi Yisrael of Salant.

“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible.” The latter is an interesting qualification. What can you do when the person whom you offended has moved to another country and there is no way you can find and reach him? Siduro Shel Shabbos says that when you genuinely regret your action and have exhausted every possibility at personally contacting the person you offended, you may assume that Hashem will put it in his heart to forgive you.

Step #10: Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

In Alei Shur, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe says that one should carry a notebook and record occurrences of a moral or ethical nature, and review them at the end of the day. We may so easily forget things we don’t like to remember, but it is precisely these things that require our attention. Keeping a running chesbon hanefesh is the best way to identify mistakes and correct them

One cannot emphasize strongly enough “when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” The natural tendency is to defend a mistake and rationalize it. This is a gross error. Recent political events have proven that “cover-ups” do not work. One will have much better results if one overcomes the tendency to defend a mistake, and admit it promptly.

One of the Torah commentaries points out the greatness of the patriarch, Abraham. The Torah sharply condemns human sacrifice, “For everything that is an abomination of Hashem, that He hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters have they burned in the fire for their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31). For decades Abraham had preached against this pagan worship, stating that G-d could never desire a human sacrifice.

Now, Abraham understood that Hashem wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, and he was actually eager to fulfill the Divine will. But how would he face the scores of people to whom he had so vehemently condemned human sacrifice? He would have to say, “For the past sixty or more years, what I told you was wrong.” Abraham was willing to admit that all his life, he had been wrong. That was the greatness of Abraham.

Step #11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious with G-d, praying only for knowledge of His will and the power to carry it out.

The mussar and Chassidic literature is replete with this principle.

Rather than praying for personal needs, King David says, “One thing I ask of Hashem, that I shall seek; That I dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life (Psalms 27:4). When G-d appeared to King Solomon in a dream, and offered to grant him a wish, Solomon asked only for wisdom.

In his fervent Tefillah Kodem Hatfillah (Introductory prayer), Rebbe Elimelech pleads for Divine assistance in praying. He closes his prayer with, “If we lack the wisdom to direct our hearts to You, then You teach us that we should know in truth the intention of Your good will.”

Step #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.

Torah teaches us that we have a duty of arvus, of mutual responsibility for one another. There is a Scriptural mitzvah of tochacha, of giving reproof for improper behavior. Indeed, if one has the possibility of positively influencing another person and fails to do so, one is held responsible for the other person’s misdeeds.

The Talmud says that there is one verse on which all of Torah depends: “Know G-d in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), Torah rejects the idea “Give unto G-d that which is His and unto Caesar that which is his.” We do not have two standards, one for religion and the other for the secular. We are required to practice the principles of Torah “in all our affairs.”

My book, Self-Improvement? I’m Jewish, was written at the request of a recovering alcoholic who wanted a program based on mussar. At the end of the book, I cited the 12-steps, pointing out that they essentially comprise a program based on mussar.

Let me share another insight with you.

Rambam says that true teshuvah is achieved when “Hashem, who knows the innermost secrets of one’s heart, will testify that the person will never again commit this sin” (Laws of Teshuva 2:2). Commentaries ask (e.g Lechem Mishnah), How can Rambam make that statement? A person always has bechira, the freedom to do good or to sin. If Hashem testifies that the person will never again commit that sin, then either he loses his bechira or Hashem’s testimony was not correct. Neither of these is acceptable.

I attended a meeting of recovering alcoholics at which the speaker said, “The man I once was, drank. And the man I once was, will drink again. If I ever go back to being the man I once was, I will drink again.” Suddenly, the Rambam’s words were clear.

A sin does not occur in a vacuum. A sin occurs when a person is in a spiritual state that allows that sin to occur.

For example, a frum person would not eat treife. He is at a level of Torah observance where eating tereife is just not a possibility. Let us suppose that he discovered that he inadvertently had spoken lashon hara. He regrets this deeply and resolves, “I must now be more careful with my speech.”

Good teshuva? No, says Rambam. Speaking lashon hara is a grievous sin, just as is eating tereife. Yet, although it was impossible that this person would inadvertently eat tereife, it was not impossible for him to inadvertently speak lashon hara. True teshuva, says Rambam, is when the person elevates himself to a level of kedusha where inadvertently speaking lashon hara is as impossible as eating tereife.

It is, of course, possible that a person may slip from that level of kedusha, in which case he may indeed repeat the act. Thus, Hashem does not testify that the person will never again commit the sin, but rather that he has succeeded in attaining a level of kedusha, where, at this level, that sin is not a possibility. That is why the Rambam, uncharacteristically, chose to refer to Hashem as, “who knows the innermost secrets of one’s heart;” i.e, He knows that this person has achieved the level of spirituality.

This why the Rambam continues, that with this kind of teshuva, the person can say, “I am no longer the same person that committed that sin” (ibid. 2:4).