12-Steppism vs. Judaism


     It's Wednesday evening in the basement of a local Catholic church. There is a good turnout for tonight's 7 PM meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. As always, Max feels somewhat uncomfortable, without quite understanding why -- but he had been drinking far too much a while back, and had nearly lost his job as a result; his wife and his doctor had both urged him to join AA, because they assumed that's where anyone with a drinking problem should go. Something about AA seemed "un-Jewish" to Max, but he had never discussed it with his rabbi -- he just wanted to do the right thing, and anyway other AA members constantly repeated that AA was "not religious" and was applicable to problem drinkers of any background. "It works if you work it!", they always chanted at the end of meetings -- and frequently he heard that "those who reject AA are just in denial of their alcoholism."

     It's time for the "sharing" -- the individual tales of what life was like for the member before AA, and how much better it is now. Max knows he is supposed to feel uplifted and inspired by these "shares", but somehow he doesn't, which makes him feel guilty. Many of the "shares" conclude with "I know it wasn't me that got me sober -- all the credit goes to my "higher power" whom I choose to call God, and to AA." Max can't help thinking that maybe people should take credit for themselves for having changed their behavior and improved their lives, but all the AA literature warns against "pride" and "self-will", and his "sponsor" and other AA members have warned him to stop believing he is "unique" in any way. He's also been given ominous warnings about terrible things that happen to people who stop attending AA and try to stay sober on their own. So he tries to stop having his doubts, and to just go along with what everyone else in AA does. One thing he will never be able to bring himself to do, though: recite the so-called "Lord's Prayer" at the end of the meeting, while holding hands with his fellow AA members. No one else seems to object, or even acknowledge that this is a Christian prayer. Max wants to run out of the room when the chanting begins, but doesn't wish to be rude, so he just stands silently and miserably until they are finished.

     In the last several decades, it has become increasingly common for people to be ordered by courts and other state agencies to attend AA meetings for a specified frequency and period of time. Prison inmates are often required to attend AA, NA, or other "12-step" programs as well. However, there have been four major successful court challenges to this (as well as numerous out-of-court settlements based on these cases) on the grounds that AA and other "12-step" organizations are religious groups, whose philosophy involves religious proselytizing, and therefore government-ordered 12-step involvement violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The American Jewish Congress felt strongly enough about this that they filed amicus curiae briefs in several of these cases, even though the plaintiffs did not happen to be Jewish.



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 God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God 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 God 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.


     These "steps" are from Chapter 5 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, known as "the Big Book" of AA, written in 1939 by Bill Wilson, one of AA's founders, and which all members are encouraged to read and study. The other chapters, as well as the later supplementary book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, espouse Wilson's philosophy and belief that "no human power can relieve alcoholism, but God can if He is sought." As one of the justices for the majority opinion in Griffin v. Coughlin wrote, "A fair reading of the doctrinal literature of Alcoholics Anonymous shows that its dominant theme is unequivocally religious."

     I'm not certain what the official anthropologist's definition of "religion" is, but I would guess it to be a specified system of rituals and beliefs based on a core belief in a supernatural power or powers.

     Although AA, NA, and other 12-step organizations are not specifically affiliated with particular religious denominations, 12-step philosophy is a distinct religion, the "God as you understand Him" ploy notwithstanding. The God of the Steps CANNOT be any old god, but must be a god who has both the capability and the inclination to "remove shortcomings" and personally alter human behavior. This is a SPECIFIC god, whether or not AA newcomers are encouraged to visualize it in a personally appealing way as a mountain, a doorknob, the AA group, or whatever. (This kind of apparent idolatry is openly accepted in AA, but only as a sort of stepping-stone to acceptance of the Christian God, as Wilson wrote in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.) 12-Step philosophy is promulgated on "salvation" theology, which is a Christian concept. And indeed, the founders of AA have written that AA's philosophy is taken from the "book of Matthew" and the "book of James"; these are specifically Christian holy books.

     Judaism is one religion that does not hold such a concept of God. Anyone getting spiritual beliefs and guidance from the "book of James", the "sermon on the mount", or any other part of the Christian-only Bible (i.e. what Christians call the "new testament") is not a Jew, but a Christian convert-in-the-making. Personal responsibility for behavioral change (rather than divine salvation) is central to Jewish teaching.

     One of the most respected sages/philosophers in Jewish history was the 12th-century rabbi/physician Moses Maimonides. He wrote extensively on ideas of free will, among other topics. The following is an excerpt from one of his works:

     "If there was some force inherent in man's nature which irresistably drew him to a particular course ... how could God have commanded us through the prophets, 'Do this and do not do that; improve your ways, and do not follow your wicked impulses', when from the beginning of his existence a person's destiny had already been decreed? What room would there be for Torah?"

     On the other hand, 12-step/disease concept ideology holds that it is impossible for humans to alter immoral/unhealthy behavior on their own; that in fact one must give up any idea of personal responsibility and personal competence and "turn their lives over" to sponsors, groups, meetings, and of course to the AA concept of God; a constant theme in AA literature is the necessity of giving up "self-will" and indeed it is postulated that alcohol abuse is caused by "self-will run riot" (AA "Big Book",p. 62). These ideas were taken from the early 20th-century religious organization known as "the Oxford Group" (which AA's founders were members of); the philosophy of that organization included (among other things) the idea that anyone who tried to run his own life and make independent decisions would be driven away from God and rendered "insane". OG members were exhorted to ask "spiritually advanced" elders of the group what "God's guidance" was for every facet of their lives. Complete surrender to "God-control" would result in salvation by God from all manner of sinful behavior. There is nothing Jewish about such a worldview.

      "The fact that we have free will, to choose [righteousness] or not, means that we have been granted the capability of doing enormous good and immense harm. We can find a cure for cancer or we can blow ourselves to bits: it's entirely up to us. But in order for free will to work, God has to set a limit to Divine power; if we are to be free agents morally, God may not intervene and deprive us of that capability... In other words, God has removed human behavior from the sphere of Divine control and influence."

Rabbi S. Roth
Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


     The Oxford Group and its founder, Rev. Frank Buchman, were eventually discredited when Buchman praised Hitler in a 1939 interview, and suggested that the ideal government would be "a God-controlled Fascist dictatorship." However, the "God-control", "surrender", and salvation from "insanity" ideas continued on in the 12-step philosophy of AA and later spin-offs.

     There are numerous other facets of AA philosophy that are incompatible with Jewish tradition. AA devotees often speak of the necessity of "acceptance", and the AA "Big Book", p. 449, is often cited:

     "...I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at the moment... Unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes."

     A major concept in Judaism, on the other hand, is "Tikkun Olam" -- Repair of the World. The following is from a recent "Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly":

     "...Jews are commited to social action as a positive Mitzvah (commandment). ...We may not sit back and do nothing in the face of evil; we may not decline involvement and assert 'It's none of my business.' Indeed, every person's life impinges on ours. A Jew must be involved in the improvement of society and in the struggle for justice, truth, and peace."

     Preaching "powerlessness" over behavior, and encouraging endless confessions and "humility" in the hope that God will perform the miracle of changing your behavior for you, is not only offensive to many, but useless to most. Serious writers/researchers (e.g. Stanton Peele, Herbert Fingarette, etc.) know that the majority of problem drinkers will "mature out" of their unhealthy behavior without any official "treatment"; for those who require outside assistance there are, of course, many successful therapies and counseling programs based on science, not religion. For those who desire group support, secular sobriety groups such as SMART or Lifering Secular Recovery provide support that is much more in keeping with Jewish values, in that they encourage self-empowerment and personal responsibility for behavioral change, and do not encourage unhealthy dependency and lifetime involvement with the group. In the U.S., however, AA continues to dominate the support-group scene, and is no longer suggested only as a last resort. For some reason a "born-again" religious fellowship created in the 1930's for well-off white Christian believers who were declared "hopeless alcoholics" by their doctors has become elevated to the level of "necessary treatment" for anyone who ever had too much to drink. Jews requiring assistance should not be pushed into religious support groups (including AA) that teach non-Jewish ideology. And no one, Jewish or not, should ever be forced by the government to attend AA. For people to be forbidden from simply discontinuing their problematic behavior and instead be ordered by courts and employers into this religious cult, under threat of imprisonment or job loss, is an outrage. As part of Tikkun Olam, Jews must strive to correct this injustice.

~Rita K.