My father, who suffered from heroin addiction from 1939 until 1963, never felt comfortable following the version of twelve steps he encountered his last year of life in one of the first methadone clinics in New York City, a Harlem storefront directed by Dr. William Baird. I remember my father telling my mother that he didn’t take well to singing “Amazing Grace,” which was the way Dr. Baird opened the meeting.My father didn’t like referring to himself as a “wretch,” one of the song’s lyrics. As Jews, we didn’t believe in original sin, and the word “wretch” only reconfirmed for my father that Jews and twelve steps didn’t mix well. It might have helped my father if he had known that the author of the lines written in 1773 , English poet and clergyman John Newton, was referring to his sinful participation in the slave trade. Nevertheless, my father struggled with moral judgments about his addiction that were still prevalent in the 1960s, and he complained about Dr. Baird as being too moralistic in his approach, too rigid and authoritarian.
Even today on Cape Cod where I attend twelve step meetings, I encounter few, if any, Jewish people. There are rabbis who have shown the relationship of the twelve steps to Jewish moral codes and values, the first being Hasidic Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski, as well as several others who have been influenced by Rabbi Twerski’s approach, including Hasidic Rabbi Shais Taub and Reform Rabbis Rami Shapiro and Kerry M. Orlitsky. And there are, I know, ongoing twelve step meetings in Orthodox Jewish communities. But from my experience, the view of God presented in official twelve step literature can still seem, on the surface, to be a Christian God with whom it could be difficult for a Jew to relate.
Step 3 of Nar-Anon reads, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. “ And one of the daily readings called “Making A Decision,” states, “From Nar-Anon I am learning that my Higher Power will take care of things. I will wait for direction. I believe my Higher Power will put me where I should be.” For a Jew, these directives can sound too much like a denial of free will, and a yielding of the individual’s role in shaping her or his path to recovery. For a secular Jew like myself, an adult child of an addicted parent, the path to recovery needs to emphasize a greater partnership, a greater dialogue between myself and my higher power.
The Biblical story that affected me most deeply when I was just a teenager was of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. If God is, indeed, all-knowing and all-powerful, I thought, then how could God learn from Abraham, a mere human? I realized that in the Jewish conception, human beings had the power and even the responsibility to challenge God. If God proposed unfair actions, like destroying the innocent along with the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah, it was the role of human beings, like Abraham, to question God and to disagree. I was moved by Abraham’s spiritual independence and audacity. Abraham’s story empowered me in the belief that human beings can affect a shaping process over their own lives and the lives of others, that one’s fate is not necessarily pre-determined. I concluded that one’s life results from the choices one makes. One must not remain passive.
How can I reconcile my understanding as a Jew of Abraham’s ability not only to dialogue with God but also to influence God with the seemingly contradictory idea that a person must turn her or his will entirely over to God in the matters of addiction? Isn’t such a person giving up her or his individual free will? Isn’t such a person becoming passive and dependent?
Delving further into twelve steps, I have learned how addiction results in the individual’s being deprived of a spiritual connection. The all-consuming nature of addiction to heroin often causes the addict and his or her family to reject the potential dialogue with the creative force that choosing life can afford. “Choose life,” God declares in the Hebrew Bible. In this view, turning oneself over fully to the life force, to the creative power that resides in all of us, provides us with a renewed opportunity to connect once again with free will, to exercise the free will that the slavery to addiction and to enabling has taken away from us.