Rabbi Twerski Answers Questions About the 12 Step Groups
A member of our chizuk list and forum sent us his questions and concerns about the 12 step groups. I forwarded his questions to Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski, a world renowned expert on addictions, Talmid Chacham and author of over 50 books. We thank Rabbi Twerski for taking the time to respond to the writer's questions below.
Dear GuardUrEyes, I read your articles and am duly impressed with your clarity and think you are one smart guy. I also want to personally thank for opening this site and giving so much of your time to us.
I hope you don't mind me bugging you but there is something that has been bothering me for a long time. I sit here Hoshana Rabba at night having had my worst chol hamoed ever and realize that I am a serious sex addict and am strongly considering the 12 step program as a last resort and I know you promote the 12 step program very strongly. However, I have some very serious reservations on the program and have tried to put them in writing below. I know R/Dr. Twersky is a huge fan of the program and he is a bigger talmid chochom then me but my reservations are still compelling. I spent a lot of time drafting these questions and would immensely appreciate it if you could take a look and respond when you have time. Please don't brush off my concerns as addictive thinking, trying to find excuses not to work the program, they are not (although I doing that too!). I know you might disagree with these problems but I hope you at least understand my concerns.
I fail to understand how the program coincides with me being frum, let me explain, when I overcome any type yetzer hora I become closer to hashem and gain schar in olam haba, the same is true when working on my middos and definitely with fighting my sexual desires. I am not working on my sexual addiction purely as a physiological problem as a non-jew would but also as a frum Jew trying to do hashem's will. When working with the 12 step program, especially if I end up hooking up with a non Jewish sponsor, I will not be working on my problem as a Jew. I feel it's like if I were having a problem with my emunah in hashem or my davening needed chizuk and I went to a Christian support group giving chizuk in our belief in god and praying but we would be discussing two separate gods (me as Jew and they as christians).
Years ago, a person in recovery requested that I develop a recovery program based on our sifrei mussar. I wrote the book "Self Improvement? I’m Jewish!", which is such a program. At the end of the book I say, “Now turn the page and read the 12 steps.” The two are essentially identical. However, instead of the phrase “G-d, as I understand Him” we would say Hashem.
A non-Jewish sponsor can guide you through working the steps, but any issue involving Yiddishkeit should be taken up with a Rav who understands the 12 step program. The sponsor is not providing chizuk in emunah, but may show you how to put your emunah to use. In JACS there are a number of haredi Jews who have no problem following the 12 step program. Obviously, in forming a circle, one should not hold hands with a woman. One can station oneself between two men.
I have attended many mussar shiurim. Everybody understands the importance of mussar, but I doubt if many people walk away with the feeling, "If I deviate from this, I'm dead!" A person sincere in recovery realizes that his very life depends on following the program, not theoretically, but very practically. If people would accept mussar that way, it would work.
No one in any mussar shiur I attended has ever spoken up and said, "I tried to do things my way, and I fell right back into my old ways." That helps bring home the message that one's life depends on following the program.
I don't recall anyone in a mussar shiur being so touched that they began to cry. It happens often in the 12 step program.
No one in a mussar shiur shares strength, hope and courage.
These things are what makes the difference.
Why can't I find a single mussar sefer that talks about the concept of addiction? Yes, you will probably find certain ideas in seforim that match the concept of the 12 steps and maybe even addiction, but the idea of being struck with a disease is clearly just not out there in mussar seforim. Chaza"l understood the human mind and the yetzer hora much better then any psychologist but the seforim only talk about the old fashion way of just not doing aveiros and holding yourself back, there are no 12 steps, diseases, methods etc. in the words of chazal. I heard you talk about the fact that you found all of the 12 steps in Sharie Teshuva and the Rambam on the phone conference and I actually looked them up but they definitely do not clearly give you these as tools and don't mention the concept of addiction.
It really bothers me that as a frum Jew, I can't find salvation in the torah but have to turn to modern psychology for new ideas and the 12 step program, a concept indirectly (or directly) related to Christianity as if Judaism does not cater to this type or strength of a yetzer hora.
In my meager knowledge of the sifrei mussar, I have not found a structured method on addiction, although the principles are all there.
I surmise that the widespread addictive use of drugs did not exist when the sifrei mussar were written. Actually, the epidemic of drug use in the secular world is a rather recent (20th century) phenomenon, or at least if drug addiction did exist, it was well concealed. Alcohol use was more common, yet never reached current proportions.
The aphorism “shikker vi a goy” (drunk as a gentile) is no longer valid, but I suspect that in earlier days, the opprobrium of shikker was so intense that it suppressed addictive use of alcohol. There were a few shikkurim who were social outcasts. Alcoholism as we know it, i.e. functioning alcoholics may have existed in greater numbers, but this too was concealed.
Obviously the incidence of excessive drinking among Jews has increased. As recently as 50 years ago, country clubs did not take on Jewish weddings or Bar Mitzvahs, because they make their money on alcohol rather than on food. Today they actively solicit Jewish events.
Whereas forbidden sexual activity certainly occurred, I doubt that the phenomenon of sexual addiction was ever brought to the attention of the authors of sifrei mussar.
Question 3 (a).
I have read books and a lot online on the 12 step program. The two main recovery components of the 12 step program are group support, which I could definitely benefit from and steps one, two and three where we realize we are powerless, realize only god could help and we turn over our will to god. Can you explain how this works, I am sitting in front of my computer with a enormous urge to browse or masturbate, how do I suddenly turn over my will to god and how does it help? Is it in the mind? What changes that I can all of a sudden control myself?
It is of great interest that the 12 step program requires “practicing these principles in all our affairs.” One cannot isolate alcohol, drugs or sex and address only these behaviors. The program requires a comprehensive moral inventory and a sincere attempt at eliminating one’s character defects. Successful recovery requires an overhaul of one’s character.
One AA speaker, on the occasion of his 20th anniversary of sobriety began with, “The man I once was drank, and the man I once was will drink again.” Successful recovery requires emergence of a new person.
The Talmud says that a single verse which encapsulates the entire Torah is “Know G-d in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6). All authorities, from Rambam down, explain that not only must one observe the mitzvos of the Torah, but all one’s actions should be “Torahdig.” A person who indulges in everything that the Torah permits is referred to as “a vulgar person within the confines of Torah law” (Ramban Leviticus 19:2). Just as it is a violation of Torah to eat chazzer (pork), it is also a violation to eat strictly kosher food like a chazzer (hog). A person is required to eat Torahdig, sleep Torahdig, transact Torahdig and cohabit Torahdig.
Turning over one’s will to the will of Hashem cannot be exercised when one is faced with temptation. From the time one awakes until one retires one must live Torahdig. Just dressing haredi and wearing a beard haredi and even davening haredi is not yet a Torahdig life style, and will not discourage addiction.
It is not easy to turn all of one’s life over to Hashem, but this is what the 12-step program requires and what Torah requires. “Half measures avail us nothing,” and for that matter, 95% measures also avail us nothing. “Know G-d in all your ways”
Question 3 (b).
Part two of my question is can I can divide the two components above, will working the 12 steps by myself (books, online etc.) without going to meetings work or if I find another way of group support (a partner or the website) without using the 12 steps, will that work, is it worth a try?
Group support is vital. Let’s compare it to tefillah, which should be btzibur (with a minyan). The sefarim say that davening with a minyan with little kavannah (concentration) is superior to davening alone with much kavannah. In practice, failure to attend meetings is generally unsuccessful. If you are not going to use the 12 steps, what are you going to use? As pointed out, a mussar approach is very similar to the 12 steps.
As of today, b'h my only problem is mainly masturbation and porn, I am concerned of hearing people speak of their experiences with other women and I will get too many good ideas at the meetings and begin exploring those ideas. Also, I have heard that people attending the 12 steps sometimes get turned on by hearing other women talk about their sexual obsessions (I heard of a guy who hooked up with a women at the meeting, dunno if it's true), this concerns me too.
There is indeed the risk of “crazy house romances.” Single gender meetings on sexual addiction is most advisable. There is also a risk of exploring the ideas one may hear.
There are deaths due to antibiotics or surgery, yet this risk does not stop people from availing themselves of the most effective medical treatment.
I am afraid of being seen or recognized. Let's face it, disease or not, it's frowned upon and people (especially in the frum community) do judge. This is something I am willing and realize I need to compromise on but I would like to hear your perspective on this.
The fear of being recognized is understandable, but the only people who will recognize you are those who have your problem. Your secret is their secret. It is highly unlikely that one will tell a friend “guess whom I saw at an SA meeting.”
Addictions are usually progressive. Physicians who resisted attending AA or NA meetings for fear of being recognized are almost invariably exposed when their loss of control leads to behavior that is a public disclosure in a far worse way. I believe this is also true of sexual addiction.
Important note from the webmaster:
We started the "Jewish Healing Group", an anonymous telephone conference group that meets once a week on the phone with a trained religious counselor. We created this group precisely because of the concerns that this person expresses above. However for a serious addict, a "LIVE" group may still be essential as well.
For more answers and info on how the 12 step group work, please see the following links on our site:
How the 12 steps coincide with being frum
The power of group support and of opening up
Rabbi Twerski talks about the Groups
What does it mean giving yourself over to G-d?
More about Group Support
How group support works