Noahide Review of “G-d of Our Understanding” and the 12 Steps

G-d of Our UnderstandingBook Review:

G-d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction [1]

Reviewed by: Brian S. ben Noach

 

This essay is as much about the organization Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its work, and its famous Twelve-step Program, as it is about the book by Rabbi Shais Taub which put this subject into a traditional Jewish (i.e. Torah-based) perspective. Rabbi Taub endorsed the 12 Steps, as well as the general concept of 12 Step fellowships. What are Rabbi Taub’s credentials which give him authority to make this endorsement? And did he do a good thing by endorsing the 12 Steps? This book review is going to examine some objections that persons of the traditional Jewish faith, as well as Noahides who accept the Torah tradition and its 7 Noahide Commandments for Non-Jews, might have to 12 Step fellowships. Ultimately, I will follow Rabbi Taub’s example in giving my endorsement to the 12 Steps for Noahides, that they can permissibly join this version of the recovery movement if they so desire. But I will not do so without expressing my objections, concerns, warnings and reservations.

The following are the 12 Steps as originally published by Alcoholics Anonymous:[2]

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.

 

Endorsing the 12 Steps as not specific to a particular religion

Many chr’stian denominations gave the 12 Steps their blessing not too long after Alcoholics Anonymous was formed. The first Orthodox Jewish endorsement of the 12 Steps was made in the mid-1990s by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, who is not only a highly respected rabbi of the Chernobil chasidic dynasty, but also a renown psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse,[3] so he certainly had the credentials to make the endorsement. Rabbi Taub is critical of the many Jewish communities that have not been very open to hosting 12 Step meetings in their synagogues and study halls, instead of directing that criticism to the 12 Step programs themselves. He comments that it took Orthodox Jewish groups many years before they endorsed the 12 Steps, compared to chr’stian denominations. He does however identify a factor that can explain this, which is that there have been very few Orthodox rabbis with the secular academic and medical credentials that need to be applied in order to make a rabbinical ruling concerning the acceptability and the efficacy of the 12 Steps.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a tradition of accepting endorsements from clergy, although it is not affiliated with any religion, sect or creed. On page 574 of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd Edition, Appendix V, the first line says, “Clergymen of practically every denomination have given A.A. their blessing,” and it then presents representative endorsement statements from chr’stian clergymen.

However, when I called Alcoholics Anonymous Headquarters in New York, NY, and told one of them that I was hired by a religious scholar to write a book review and possible endorsement of the 12 Steps for a religious denomination (Noahides), the woman said, “We don’t have any religious affiliation. We don’t want your blessing.” When I called back to AA weeks later and spoke with another woman, I quoted the above statement from Appendix V of the Big Book and repeated what I had previously been told by an AA representative. The second woman denied that the previous woman had said that. It left me with the impression if a chr’stian denomination gives its endorsement to AA, somehow that means more to some AA representatives than if I want to give AA my endorsement, as a Noahide with a present constituency of perhaps only about 100,000 Noahides worldwide who are not chr’stians. But that was not expressed as the opinion of AA as a whole; it was just one person who works at the AA headquarters. She obviously misunderstood, because if AA receives an endorsement from a member of a clergy or a religious scholar, that does not imply any kind of affiliation.

Several of the spiritual practices that the 12 Steps recommend, which often are not thought of as being “Jewish,” are in fact very in-line with Judaism. Since we Noahides share the Jewish faith in Torah, and we take on much of the spirituality of traditional Jews, it is therefore important to examine whether these practices are compatible with the Torah.

AA was started by one hundred upper-middle class, professional white protestant males. However, Bill Wilson, a co-founder of AA, was a visionary. In his AA literature, he mentions churches, synagogues and mosques. This was before there were any Jewish or muslim members. One can understand how the early literature of AA contained many chr’stian values. Rabbi Y. Creeger, a Chabad emissary, once said, “Just because certain values are not traditional Jewish values, doesn’t mean they are not good values.” In fact, wherever the Jews have been scattered, many times they have acquired the values of the societies among which they have lived. Jews and Noahides should not to be put off by AA literature that advances traditional chr’stian values. For example, the AA book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions talks of “the seven deadly sins” (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride). These “seven deadly sins” are not the seven capital sins that our Seven Noahide Laws prohibit; rather, it is a teaching from the Roman Catholic Church about seven types of character defects. But in keeping with what Rabbi Creeger said, they are obviously seen as character defects that Jews and Noahides should work on as well.

When I told one person to keep the 12 Steps, she said, “I do everything the 12 Steps suggest anyway because of my religion, so I have no need to join a fellowship. I do what they do anyway.” Every Noahide and Jew can say the same. We are already keeping most of the 12 Steps anyway, and as I will now argue, they are not inconsistent with Torah.

 

Step 1: falling prey to addiction leads to an unmanageable life

As humans, we are born with an animalistic nature. Adrenaline surges from both anger and fear. There is a flight-or-fight instinct when we feel threatened. Torah teaches that the way to stand our ground against giving in to those negative emotions is to overcome this instinct. The Talmud says that every human on earth has an animalistic nature which serves as the vehicle for the evil inclination, and if it is allowed to take control, that will make the person’s life unmanageable. Based on this, we can see that there is some version of the 1st Step that would be appropriate for everyone in the world.

Many AA members believe that the 1st Step means to quit drinking alchohol. That is not what the first step says. The first step is simply an admission that you are powerless over alcohol, and that it is making your life unmanageable. I remember one member of AA, said, “Why would admitting the first step make me want to quit drinking?”

 

Step 3: a prescription for resolving many types of problems (including sexual addictions)

Bill Wilson, on page 13 of the AA Big Book, said, “I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since.” This proves a couple of points which many AA members don’t understand. First, Bill Wilson did not stop drinking until he did the 3rd Step. Another member once said that he did not actually quit drinking until he was halfway through his 4th Step. I have said, “You don’t quit drinking and then work the 12 Steps; you quit drinking by working the steps.” In the Foreword to the Second Edition of the AA Big Book, on p. XX, it says, “Of alcoholics who came to AA and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement.” This leads me to believe that among true alcoholics, the hopeless cases who never quit drinking still show improvement if they work the 12 Steps. One of the problems with AA today is that if an alcoholic takes a drink, the members of the fellowship group seem to want to start the person over again with Step 1. I’m sure some members have died as a result of prevalent misunderstandings like this within AA.

 

Steps 4, 5, 6 and 7: identifying and correcting flaws in behavior, character and personality

The second point to take from Bill Wilson’s statement above is that he gave up his sins to his “new-found Friend” at his 3rd Step. So if Bill Wilson gave up his sins on his 3rd Step, what are these moral defects he talks about in steps 4, 5, 6 and 7? Obviously these steps are about character and personality development.

The Torah obligates a person to engage in character and personality development through taking personal inventory. Both Jews and Noahides are commanded to engage in character and personality development on a regular basis. My conclusion is that Steps 4 – 7 should be practiced by Jews and Noahides, even if one is not an alcoholic or addicted to some other thing. With or without working the 12 Steps, we need to take responsibility for our own characters and personalities.

In the Torah tradition, a primary source in this area is the second book of Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (Rambam), called Hilchot De’ot (Laws of Personality Development). This is an essential guide that details steps in character and personality development that are very similar to Steps 4-7 in the 12 Steps. In Hebrew, a character trait is called a middah (plural: middot.) The AA Big Book lists fear, resentments and sex problems as the main offenders in traits of character. Although his Hilchot De’ot refers only briefly to these specific flaws, Rambam’s prescription for self-improvement is general technique that applies across the board. He points out that there are many negative middot to which his program of self-improvement can be applied, so he did not attempt to list all the flaws that there can be in a person’s character.

Hilchot De’ot, which is good to read for both Jews and Noahides, is indispensable when writing a 4th Step inventory. Resentments, anger and grudges are discouraged in Judaism and Noahidism. We are not to be angry persons, as anger is the antithesis of faith in G-d. Regarding fear, we are told in Noahidism that we are required to develop fear of G-d and fear of sinning. Going beyond the letter of the law, if we fear anything else more than G-d, then we really aren’t giving G-d His due, and that misplaced priority will make one susceptible to sin.

 

Step 4: personal inventory

The 4th Step personal inventory helps us determine how we became threatened, and what we did – or did not do – that brought this threat upon ourselves.

 

Step 5: admitting the nature of our wrongs to another person

Rabbi Taub in his book points out that there is Jewish custom that a person should have someone as a confidante whom he respects as knowledgeable, moral and wise, whom he can tell anything to and receive this confidante’s friendly but objective advice. In Hebrew, this type of confidante is called a mashpia. The special quality sought in a mashpia is not just someone who can be a confidante, but also one who can give guidance and perspective according to Torah. Very often in AA, everyone in the group meeting is told to get a “sponsor,” and from the point of view of Noahides, a mashpia would be the best type of sponsor. Although we Noahides are not obligated to have a mashpia, the 12 Steps and the Torah as well encourage it. And the fifth of the 12 Steps requires that the person must have someone with whom he feels comfortable sharing anything and everything.

Yet nowhere in the AA Big Book does it say anything about a sponsor. The first time in AA literature that having a sponsor is mentioned is in a book called Living Sober, and it only says that a sponsor might be helpful. The AA Big Book says that the 5th Step is when the person “Admitted to G-d, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” and that this can be done with a minister, a therapist or counselor. Nowhere does the Big Book say this must be done with a sponsor, but in practice that is what people are told in their AA meetings. Therefore, just as Rabbi Taub recommended, I also recommend for a Noahide to find a mashpia.

More than one member of AA has written down their 5th Step and sent it to the local prosecutor with a full confession of crimes that had been committed. At least one of these members had to do jail time over this insanity. An important fact to remember is that one does not forfeit any of his legal rights because of following the 12 Steps, including the right not to have to incriminate oneself. Another important fact is that if one has a justifiable grievance, then one is to file the grievance. Many believe that when writing an inventory for their 4th Step, and one column has what another person did wrong to you, then when you makes amends, you are not to mention what was done wrong to you, but only what you did wrong to the other party. Yes, the Big Book does say something like that. However, if indeed you have a justifiable grievance, then you are to file the grievance. I recommend that one should consult with his mashpia or confidante to determine if a grievance is objectively justifiable.

 

Step 9: making amends

In keeping with the belief that full repentance is possible (with 24 exceptions, as Maimonides wrote in his Mishneh Torah of 24 transgressions of the 613 Jewish Commandments that can’t be made right), we stress the phrase “wherever possible” in the 9th Step. As with those 24 specific exceptions that apply in Torah Law, sometimes we cannot make right what we have done wrong, so we just have to be extra careful not to do it again. But when possible, Noahides are to make amends, even if they are not working the 12 Steps.

 

Step 11: Seeking through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with G-d

If one is the work the 12 Steps, then it becomes necessary to meditate. Although meditation is typically associated with the eastern faiths, Jews throughout history have engaged in a practice of contemplating the greatness of G-d and on Torah teachings and insights they have learned. Noahides as well should do this if they are working the 12 Steps. Noahides are not obligated to meditate on G-d and Torah wisdom, but they may do so an optional spiritual service.

The 11th Step says to pray and meditate. I must add “study” as well. For Jews and Noahides, we believe that Torah study – to learn what is right and wrong in G-d’s eyes – is more important than prayer in determining G-d’s will. So study, pray and meditate.

 

Step 12: the importance of sharing what we have gained

Does the 12th Step encourage “missionizing”? Many AA members use the 12th step as an excuse to missionize. Missionaries use a type of “spiritual violence” to try to force their message on others, such as, “Accept X-Y-Z or you will go to Hell!” Well, many AA members do the same thing by saying things such as, “Work our 12 Steps or you will go to institutions, jails or the graveyard!” Once a person becomes a member, many other members will likely say to him, “Do you want to get sober? Then do what I say! Do what I do, believe as I believe, or you will never get sober! And if you don’t get sober, I will threaten you with jails, institutions and graveyards!” Missionaries have used this tactic for hundreds of years.

However, the 12th Step doesn’t have to work like this. All the step actually says is “we tried to carry this message to alcoholics” – those who are still suffering. We can take an example from the way Chabad emissaries are trying to present the Noahide Code to the world, with no threats or spiritual coercion. One does not need to missionize in order to work the 12th Step.

 

Rabbi Taub’s and my reservations about 12 Step programs

Many like to say they believe in “G.O.D.” which either means “Group Of Drunks” or “Good Orderly Direction.” Rabbi Taub discourages this, and I do too. The word “G-d” is not an acronym. One AA member David C. used to say that there were no periods in the word “G-d” in his Big Book.

When a person attends an AA meeting, he may encounter the group saying a prayer that they call “The L-rd’s Prayer,” which chr’stians use in their liturgy. This shows how to this day, some AA groups are still holding onto chr’stian traditions that run counter to AA’s own founding principles. Rabbi Taub says that if that arises in a group situation, one should say something different under his breath, such as  Psalm 23 or some other appropriate prayer. As written by Rabbi Moshe Weiner in The Divine Code,[4] p. 95, Jews and Noahides should be careful not to recite prayers that followers of other religions composed for their liturgies. Once at an AA meeting I followed that directive, reciting Psalm 23 under my breath, and the man next to me said, “This isn’t church!” I thought to myself, “Exactly, and that is why I’m not reciting ‘The L-rd’s Prayer.’ ” For some reason, he thought that my reciting the 23rd Psalm is more religious than reciting the so-called “L-rd’s Prayer.” But even if they refer to that prayer by its alternate name, the “Our Father Prayer,” we Jews and Noahides should still not recite it.

 

My personal endorsement of the 12 steps as a Noahide

I agree with Rabbi Taub’s endorsement of the 12 Steps, but with this one reservation. If a Noahide cannot find a meeting where he is not made uncomfortable for being a non-chr’stian, then he can work the 12 Steps without being a member of a fellowship at all. The 12 Steps work with or without a fellowship. The 12 Steps have been sent to remote areas through the postal mail and the Internet, and they still work. As I have shown in this review, most of the 12 Steps are part of Noahidism already and the rest is optional to Noahidism, which means that there is no part of the 12 Steps which are contradictory to our faith, except for a couple of traditions in some local groups, such as reciting the “Our Father Prayer.”

I have studied Noahide law for about 5 years of my life, and I can also proudly say that the 12 Steps have changed my life. These are the two credentials upon which I can say that I recommend the 12 Steps to any Noahide. Even if there is no published version of the 12 Steps that apply to your unique situation, there is one thing all observant Jews and Noahides can agree on: “Without adherence to the directives of Torah and our respective commandments and G-d’s help, we are susceptible to fall to a level at which we are powerless over our animalistic nature (our evil inclination), and our lives are unmanageable.” The Talmud says this is true of every person on Earth. On this foundation, I would encourage all Noahides, after learning the details of the Seven Noahide Laws, to also work the 12 Steps.

 

My call to establish a new 12 Step fellowship: “Torah-Based Recovery Anonymous”

These are my 12 Steps for my concept of a fellowship called “Torah-Based Recovery Anonymous”:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our animalistic nature (our evil inclination) – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to humanity.

3. Made a decision to subject both our good and evil inclinations over to the care of the L-rd G-d Hashem[5] 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, meditation and study of Torah to improve our conscious contact with G-d as we understood Him, praying 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 others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

 

My changes to the 12 Steps of AA

  • Notice that in Step 1, I use “powerless over our animalistic nature, our evil inclination.”
  • Notice that in Step 2, I use “restored to humanity,” instead of “restored to sanity.”
  • Notice that in Step 3, I use “subject our good and evil inclinations over to the care of the L-rd G-d Hashem.”
  • Notice that in Step 11, I have included “study of Torah.” I also omitted the word “only,” as we are to ask G-d for everything we need.
  • Notice that in Step 12, I changed “alcoholics” to the broader scope of “others.”

 

Required Official Disclaimer

“The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have been adapted with the permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (“A.A.W.S.”). Permission to adapt the Twelve Steps does not mean that Alcoholics Anonymous is affiliated with this program. A.A. is a program of recovery from alcoholism only – use of A.A.’s Steps or an adapted version in connection with programs and activities which are patterned after A.A., but which address other problems, or use in any other non-A.A. context, does not imply otherwise. Additionally, while A.A. is a spiritual program, A.A. is not a religious program. Thus, A.A. is not affiliated or allied with any sect, denomination, or specific religious belief.”

 

Just as Rabbi Taub had reservations about the 12 steps, I also have reservations of which Noahides should be aware

1. Chr’stians using 12 step programs as a front to missionize others into chr’stianity

In my contact with AA, I saw that there are entire meetings of AA which are just a front for evangelical chr’stians. I recommend to Jews and Noahides that if you find yourself in such a meeting, leave immediately and don’t go back. There are meetings where Jews and Noahides are welcome, but if you can’t find one, remember that the 12 Steps work even if you aren’t a member of a fellowship. It is better to have no fellowship, than to have a fellowship that degrades those of the Jewish or Noahide faith.

2. Going to meetings in churches

Rabbi Taub says that there are not enough meetings in synagogues. It is important to go to meetings on religiously neutral grounds. Although Noahidism says that we are permitted to go into church property if we can get a practical benefit, I say that we Noahides should follow the standard for Jews in that we stay clear of church property even if we can have a practical benefit from being there. Rabbi Taub puts an onus on Jewish communities for not having more AA meetings at synagogues. He says that the lack of such meetings is not the fault of AA. Rabbi Taub is calling on Jews everywhere to house AA meetings. I agree. But until this starts to happen more widely, I recommend that Noahides go to AA meetings at religiously neutral locations.

3. Religious slant at group meetings

Why do I keep getting asked to read the chapter to the agnostics when I go to AA meetings? Just because I don’t accept their religion doesn’t mean I am an agnostic or a Satanist. At an AA clubhouse, a chr’stian woman asked me if I believe as she does. I said, “No.” She said, “Oh, a Satanist.” Every time I mentioned Hashem, I was told to read the chapter to the agnostic. I kept saying, “I am not an agnostic!” I already read that chapter over and over. Anytime I mentioned I was of the Jewish faith, I was told, “This is not a religious program.” And yet one member happened to be a nun who would show up in a habit. She was never harassed for being a religious person. I would say, “This may not be a religious program, but I am a religious person.” I started to believe that you can be a religious member of AA, but only if you are a chr’stian. Also, if you are a chr’stian, you may speak of your religion. But if you are a non-chr’stian, you would be told to shut your mouth about your faith. Frank W. was raised a Roman Catholic and would bring spirituality from that faith to meetings, but G-d forbid that a non-chr’stian would bring any spirituality from their faith to a meeting. Now this is just my experience. So my recommendation to Noahides is that if this happens to one of you, leave that clubhouse or meeting and go somewhere else.

 

My experiences with 12 Step programs

1. Beware, anti-Semitism is alive and well in some fellowships.

2. AA says that no sponsor is to play the role of a doctor, unless of course they are a doctor. Dr. Bob [Smith], the other co-founder of AA, provided his services free of charge to thousands of alcoholics. Officially, there is to be no professional class in AA. However, Frank Wilson was an attorney who provided free legal services to members. He claimed that when the Big Book said that there is no professional class, it means that no member is to charge money for any kind of services. That is why “Dr. Bob” and Frank Wilson were permitted to provide services only if they were free of charge. Even so, I know of a member who was a doctor and also a sponsor. He would do psychiatric evaluations of his “sponsees.” Although there is nothing technically wrong with this, it still feels wrong, like a conflict of interest. The primary purpose of AA is not to provide medical, psychiatric or legal services.

3. At a local AA clubhouse, a sponsor told his schizophrenic sponsee to flush his medication down the toilet. That schizophrenic suffered so greatly from sudden withdrawal off his medication, that he took his sponsor into the restroom at the clubhouse and shot him through the head. Everyone to this day blames that schizophrenic’s alcoholism. I will be the first to point out the evils of psychiatric drugs. I will also be the first to say that if a schizophrenic can get off psychiatric drugs and find non-chemical answers, then he should. I even met an AA member who also claimed to be a recovered schizophrenic. He does not take any prescribed or self- medications at all.

The main point is that AA is not equipped to handle this problem. Bill Wilson mentioned the “new tranquilizers,” and he himself took anti-depressant medication before he died. AA’s primary purpose is sobriety from alcohol, not abstention from psychiatric drugs. There is help out there for those who want to get off psychiatric drugs. And yet, just like there are AA members who use AA to push their chr’stianity, so there are also AA members who use AA to push people into not taking their prescription drugs. As I said above, an AA member got murdered over this. After that incident, a person named David C. said, “If you take a bottle away from a baby, the baby will cry. If you take a bottle (of liquor or pills) away from a grown man with a gun, you are in the line of fire.”

4. Beware of being told to blindly do whatever your sponsor says. It is not even a requirement of 12 Step programs to even have a sponsor. Many AA members are told to blindly do whatever their sponsor says without any argument. When one disagrees with a sponsee, he says, “I’m not going to argue,” which basically means, “I am right, you are wrong, and it isn’t up to debate.” I learned to say, “Without debate, I merely disagree.” That seems to work. But then I was told that I don’t need to disagree with anyone. This is obviously ridiculous. Often times AA members say, “Would you rather be right, or happy?” My reply is, “If you don’t hold what is right in your heart, you will never be happy.”

 

Concluding remarks

The 12 steps are a great way to live. You can live them without belonging to any fellowship, and they will still work. Just beware: 12 Step fellowships are full of sick people who are trying to get well.

In conclusion, Rabbi Taub’s work is a good accomplishment in opening up the recovery world for Jews.  As the reader can see from this review which builds on Rabbi Taub’s work, it is not difficult to also open up the recovery world for Noahides.  I recommend for anyone to read his book, even if only for educational purposes.

 

Footnotes

[1] http://www.amazon.com/God-Our-Understanding-Spirituality-Addiction/dp/1602801533/

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_J._Twerski; Rabbi Dr. Twerski is the author of Waking up Just in Time: A Therapist Shows How to use the Twelve Steps Approach to Life’s Ups and Downs (1995), and the founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, Pittsburgh, PA.

[4] See http://asknoah.org/books/the-divine-code

[5] Hebrew term which literally means “The Name,” used to refer to G-d in mundane speech and writing.

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