Is Alcoholics Anonymous too Christian for Jews?

Are the 12 steps deeply rooted in Christianity? Absolutely. But of course, Christianity is deeply rooted in Judaism.

August 21, 2019 19:10
4 minute read.
Is Alcoholics Anonymous too Christian for Jews?

SOBRIETY COINS given to Alcoholics Anonymous members representing the amount of time they have remained sober.. (photo credit: CHRIS YARZAB/FLICKR)

In Israel, it’s different. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings take place in synagogues, Jewish community service buildings and Jewish private homes.

You are as likely to see a tefillin bag or siddur, or an IDF member’s rifle in a Jerusalem A.A. meeting as you are a copy of the Big Book, A.A.’s basic text.

But pretty much everywhere else in the world, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings take place mostly in churches, and the literature, language, culture, and overall “feel” often as though they have a decidedly Christian nature.

Jews often wonder if something or someone appears “too Jewish.” But in this case, the concern goes in the opposite direction: Are A.A. and other 12-step fellowships “too Christian” for Jews?

I had to confront this issue when I first became sober more than 27 years ago. As an observant Jew, I was uncomfortable with entering churches, if only the basement. I didn’t feel comfortable with the concept of “fellowship.” And I certainly wasn’t down with the Lord’s Prayer.

At the same time, I recognized that A.A. was “the last house on the block” – pretty much the last chance I had to stop drinking and get my life in order. What’s a Jewish drunk to do?

Remarkably, that same week was Yom Kippur, and the rabbi in my Los Angeles synagogue focused his sermon on his visit to a young Jewish woman in a drug and alcohol rehab.

He spoke movingly – and convincingly – about the value of the 12 steps and about the legitimacy of 12-step recovery.
But did that make AA “kosher”? I still wasn’t sure.

I went to meet him the following week, and the discussion we had was illuminating.

First, he pointed out the obvious – that most of Christian beliefs (with the exception of accepting J.C. as one’s savior) are Jewish in origin. And since the A.A. founders derived the 12 steps of the program from Christianity, they were unknowingly borrowing concepts from... wait for it... biblical Judaism. The parallels are numerous and striking.

First, just like its forebears Christianity and Judaism, 12-step fellowships are founded on the idea that spiritual fitness is essential to live one’s best life. In Judaism, what we call as “accepting the yoke of heaven,” in Christianity and AA, it’s called surrender, and it really amounts to the same thing.

Next, during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews take stock of their lives, identifying the behaviors and attitudes they wish to cast away. At tashlich, on Yom Kippur afternoon, we literally take our “sins” in the form of breadcrumbs and toss them into moving water.

In A.A., this self-examination is called “the fourth and fifth step.” Instead of tossing our notes about our shortcomings into water, we typically tear them up and burn them, as we ask our higher power to help us overcome those difficulties and become better people.

Same deal.

A third parallel: in Judaism, the Mishna teaches that one cannot ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur until one has received forgiveness from those he or she has harmed. This is why observant Jews, prior to the fast, call their relatives, friends and business partners, asking them to “be mochal” them – to forgive them.

In recovery, the eighth and ninth steps call for those in recovery to “make amends” to those they have harmed.
Same deal yet again.

I could go on, but you get the point. Are the steps deeply rooted in Christianity? Absolutely. But of course, Christianity is deeply rooted in Judaism. So the spiritual aspects of recovery will come as no shock to most Jews, observant or otherwise.
But what about meetings in the proverbial church basements? In Judaism, we have a concept of pikauch nefesh, which means to save a life. If something is going to save a life, that action can override certain aspects of Halacha (Jewish law). Thus many rabbis, including many Orthodox rabbis, hold that a Jew can enter the part of the church that is not the sanctuary in order to attend a 12-step meeting.

And then finally, what about the Lord’s Prayer, which is recited at the end of many, but not all, A.A. meetings worldwide?
The same Orthodox rabbi who spoke to me after that Yom Kippur sermon told me the following: “When you look at the language of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s actually a series of Hebrew and Aramaic prayers cobbled together. For example, the first line, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew phrase Avinu sheba-shamayim.

Next, “Hallowed be thy name” is the same as the first line of the Kaddish prayer – “Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei rabah.”
And so on, all the way through the end of the prayer.

In short, pretty much every aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous or the 12-step program that “feels Christian” has its antecedents in Jewish law and prayer.

 So if you’re Jewish and you’re wondering if A.A. is “too Christian” for you, stroll into the nearest church basement. You’ll find plenty of your co-religionists, and I assure you that they will all tell you the same thing – that being Jewish is no bar to recovery from alcoholism and addiction.

Just don’t buy the line that there’s no such thing as a Jewish alcoholic. There are plenty of us, and if you think you might be one as well, good news: We’ve been waiting for you!

New York Times bestselling author “Michael Graubart” (a pseudonym) is the author of Morning Coffee and Sober Dad

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