As a rabbi and person in long-term recovery, I am often asked, “Why are 12-Step meetings so Christian?” My reply is that I actually find them to be very Jewish.
Why Jews Think 12-Step Groups are Christian
As the literature says, 12-Step recovery groups are spiritual, not religious programs, and for the most part, my experience has borne this out. Another 12-Step tenet states that, “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”
Much like Judaism values interpretation over literalism, each group is autonomous and may interpret and regulate precepts as it sees fit. I have attended meetings where the group did not follow the “spiritual not religious” (at least by my interpretation!) guideline, and I chose not to return to those meetings. When I started going to meetings, I didn’t feel they were religious. Either I was desperate enough not to notice, or lucky that the meetings in my town were clear about spiritual not religious. Having now experienced meetings all over the country, I lean towards the latter (though I was definitely desperate!).
Individuals at meetings will sometimes drift into religious-speak, and since we live in a majority Christian country, Christianity is often referenced when this happens. More often than not, they are either ignorant of the spiritual-not-religious principle or did not realize they were violating it. I frequently find myself functioning as the “religion” police at meetings, sometimes tactfully, sometimes not. Most often, others are understanding and apologetic.
I confess I wasn’t always so generous. After a decade in recovery, I moved to a different part of the country and discovered that while all meetings are the same, people aren’t. My new home had plenty of meetings with what I thought was “Christian-speak” and I was put-off. My sponsor helped me understand that some of it was people not understanding the difference between spiritual and religious, but it was mostly me making up reasons why they were wrong, and I was right. The adage that I can be right or be happy became one of my favorites!
There is no doubt that 12-Step programs have components that seem Christian. The Lord’s Prayer and Serenity Prayer are staples of most 12-Step groups. Theologically, there is nothing problematic with a Jew reciting these prayers. If one is uncomfortable, there is always the choice to either stay quiet or say something else (no one will hear you!). But using these as an excuse to stay out of recovery is just that, an excuse. I understand and empathize with Jews (and others) who are bothered by what they deem Christian prayer in meetings. And with time, my experience is that those who are convinced they are being “wronged” by the language of 12-Step prayer, don’t stay clean and sober. Those who are able to understand the language is not about excluding them are able to stay connected and ultimately sober.
Making the Jewish Connection
Many years ago, a friend of mine asked if I had ever heard of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS). My answer was “no,” I had never heard of JACS and I confess he had to talk me into going. As someone who respects the spiritual-not-religious aspect of the 12-Step program, I did not understand how a Jewish recovery meeting fit into the recovery landscape. I quickly discovered it was not a 12-Step meeting, but rather it was a support community for Jews in recovery. JACS was a place where Jews in recovery could talk about those things unique to Judaism that affect recovery life.
That first meeting was about Passover and how Jews in recovery deal with wine at Seder. It was amazing and comforting to be able to talk about uniquely Jewish issues with others who understood, without explanation. It was also amazing to realize I was not one of two Jews in recovery, but one of many!
At that first meeting, they gave me an article titled, “Lord’s Prayer at AA Meetings” reprinted from the Fall 1987 Journal of Reform Judaism. They also handed me a piece about “praying on our knees” that quotes the Book of Daniel. These did not alleviate my discomfort with some of 12-Step meeting attributes but helped me start to see that 12-Step meetings are as rooted in Jewish tradition as they are in Christian tradition. We talk about a “spiritual awakening” in 12-Step meetings. This was likely mine.
This Jewish connection to recovery became very important to me. Left to my own devices, I knew I would forget that what happens at meetings isn’t all about me and I needed reminders that the 12-Steps are as Jewish as they are Christian. When I moved to Indianapolis, there wasn’t anything like JACS available, so I started a meeting here that is now in its 16th year.
Working the Steps through a Jewish Lens
Once my eyes were opened to the synergy between Judaism and the 12-Step program, I started to see connections all the time.
During the High Holydays, we are instructed to make an “accounting of our souls,” a cheshbon hanefesh, so we can clean up the wrongs we have done to other people and repent. This mirrors the 4th step: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. The Hebrew word for repentance, t’shuvah, literally means “return,” as in returning to a state of rightness with others. It is not just saying “I’m sorry,” it is acting on my desire to return my relationships to rightness just as the 12-Steps instructs that we clean up my mistakes by taking action and making amends.
My first time working the 8th and 9th steps, making a list of those I had harmed, becoming willing to make amends, and then making those amends, sounded just like Yom Kippur. The 12-Steps makes a distinction between apology and amends. We are instructed to make amends, to make things right.
Powerlessness, the recovery idea that I am powerless over my addiction and must turn my life and will over to the care of a power greater than myself as expressed in Steps 1-3 is quintessentially Jewish. I still wrestle with the notion of the Biblical God, but I am clear that while I might not know what God is, I am very clear it is not me! There is a power in the universe greater than me.
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (BeSHT) said, “There is no room for God in the person who is full of self.” In the 17th century, the BeSHT knew that the root cause of spiritual malady was self-centeredness and that one who is focused on oneself is disconnected from the world. I do not know if the BeSHT thought about addiction and recovery, but that he names this Jewish fundamental truth that is also a core truth of addiction, is no coincidence. Recovery is very Jewish.
Before recovery, I didn’t think my life had anything wrong with it. I wasn’t in jail, I had a job, I could pay my bills. Yet, I had no real friends, I was incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with anyone other than using friends, and fully expected to die before age 30. And didn’t care. I had no concept of spirituality or that my sad state was a spiritual malady. God was a name in books and must not exist because I didn’t get what I asked for, time and time again. That this was a spiritual malady was inconceivable. And yet, that’s exactly what it was – a spiritual hole in my soul that recovery started to fill.
Narcotics Anonymous talks about “reservations” (and no, not for dinner). Reservations are those things I create in my mind that keep me from doing the right thing. Over decades, my experience is that Jews sometimes use the perception that the 12-Steps are Christian as a reservation and an excuse not to follow a 12-Step program. “There is no room for God in the person who is full of self.” I can create any number of reasons why I shouldn’t stay in recovery, and each of them is a reservation.
Admitting I am afflicted with this disease, that I am an addict/alcoholic, and I that I cannot treat this disease on my own is literally the 1st Step. Judaism requires a minyan for public prayer because it is only in community that we are sanctified, literally holy. 12-Step programs are the same; there is an idiom that says, “I can’t, we can.”
Hineh mah tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad, Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1). To recover, we need each other!
Rabbi Aaron Spiegel serves is a transformational rabbi, leader, a strategic planner in IT, nonprofit management and digital consulting, a published author, and a seasoned public speaker. Aaron is currently President of the Synagogue Studies Institute and Interim Executive Director at the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. As a person in long-term recovery, he facilitates the Indy JACS Jewish recovery meeting, now in its 16th year, and is a valued member of JAAN’s Advisory Council. Aaron was the founding director of the Center for Congregations, a Lilly Endowment funded project, where he served from 1999-2021, during which time he was the architect of their Congregational Resource Guide. Before relocating to Indianapolis in 1996, he seerved several congregations in South Florida. Aaron has a B.A. in Comparative Theology from the Union Institute & University (Miami, FL), rabbinic ordination from The Rabbinical Academy of Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, and a D.Min. in congregational studies from Hartford International University. To learn more about Aaron and his consulting services, visit his website.