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Judaism & Recovery

What Religion Is Recovery

By Shais Taub

A Rabbi’s Perspective

In spite of everything we’ve spoken of so far pointing to the universal truths behind the spiritual principles of recovery, I am sure that for many readers the nagging question remains: “Okay, sure, the Twelve Steps aren’t officially Christian, but are they really compatible with my beliefs as a Jew?”

At least, that is how I have heard the question posed to me hundreds of times. My first answer is that I cannot tell anyone whether the Steps can be reconciled with their personal beliefs, because I don’t know exactly what it is that any one person believes. All I can attempt to do is try to show how the Steps fit—or don’t fit—with Jewish belief, which does not necessarily have to be the same as what the individual asking the question may or may not believe. So, let us establish from the start: I am not trying to tell anyone what to believe—not as a Jew and not as a recovering person. What I cando is look at the Steps from a theological perspective, as a rabbi and a student of the Torah, and offer my best analysis of what the Steps seem to be telling us about their approach to relating to God.

How Jewish Are the Steps?

There’s an easy way to avoid answering this question altogether. That is just to say that since the Steps espouse no particular theological beliefs, they are, as such, compatible with all spiritual paths. I don’t like that answer.

I don’t think that it’s completely accurate or completely honest. The Steps, although replete with the qualifier, “God of our understanding,” do make, or at least imply, some definite theological assertions. It’s impossible to talk that much about God without having at least some unspoken presuppositions about who exactly this God is. The answer I usually give is not only that there is nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God. The Steps, in their clear and simple language, marvelously communicate certain truths in which we as Jews are already enjoined to believe. Accordingly, as expressed in the title of this book, the Jew in recovery is often delighted to find that the “God of our understanding” turns out to be the very same as “the God of our fathers.”

At the same time, I humbly try to keep in mind the story of the alcoholic Quaker who, after having sobered up in AA, wrote to Bill Wilson to tell him that the Steps were remarkably consistent with the beliefs he had already gained from his religious background. Wilson responded in a now-published letter (As Bill Sees It, p. 116): “The really amazing fact about AA is that all religions see in our program a resemblance to themselves.”

So, at last, whether the Steps more closely represent one belief system or another is irrelevant. I have no stake in calling the Steps Jewish, even if they strike me as being such. What I do feel is important, however, is to explain my understanding of the Steps in a way that can potentially help Jews feel comfortable, knowing that their recovery through the Twelve Steps does not compromise their Jewishness in any way. This, in many ways, is actually the whole point of this book—to help Jewish addicts find recovery through the Steps.

I am aware of the argument that what I am doing here is unnecessary. There are those who will dismiss the need for a Jewish commentary on recovery because, as they explain, a Jew need not see the Steps as Jewish in order to make use of them. When in need of healing, they say, Judaism enjoins us to use whatever means are effective. Just as a Jew does not require a uniquely Jewish method of treating his or her medical problems, so too a Jew does not need a uniquely Jewish method of recovering from addiction.

The problem with this argument is that the Steps are not your conventional medicine or therapy, even though it would simplify things a great deal if we claimed that they were. The Steps are a prescription for a spiritual way of living. Accordingly, we Jews rightfully wonder whether this spiritual way of life is consistent with our tradition.

What Does “Nondenominational” Really Mean?

At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, allow me to say that addicts are always looking for an excuse not to recover. It’s part of the disease. Every addict—irrespective of his or her drug of choice—possesses a certain nagging sense of what we call “terminal uniqueness.” Eventually, the addict will always claim, “But my case is different.” It’s not so much that addicts are too proud to buy into anything too “mainstream”—although that is certainly a factor. Rather, addicts typically feel so unusual, so special, that they have difficulty believing that anything normal, popular or universal can be of any help to them.

This presents a special dilemma. The premise of Twelve Steps recovery is that living according to basic spiritual principles brings a reprieve from active addiction. Spirituality, as we have discussed previously, is the solution. But if the Twelve Steps were recognizably aligned to any known ideology or set of beliefs, addicts would find an easy excuse for feeling driven away from the program. Thus we see that while Twelve-Step groups are, as a rule, staunchly committed to spiritual principles, they are equally as renowned for their flexibility on all matters pertaining to the particular beliefs of their members. Indeed, one criticism leveled at Twelve-Step fellowships by religiously inclined individuals, both from within the program and outside of it, is the perceived ambiguity as to what beliefs are actually set forth by the spiritual tenets of recovery.

In recovery circles, one often hears this dichotomy described as the distinction that we have noted before, between spirituality and religion. “Religion” denotes dogma and the default acceptance of certain articles of faith, whereas “spirituality” is a softer, suppler word that leaves itself open to all kinds of interpretation. To wit, there is the widely told, though perhaps apocryphal, tale of the agnostic who upon coming to AA decided to choose the doorknob as his Higher Power.

For the reason we have just discussed, it is understandable that AA and the Twelve-Step groups that came after it have held a staunchly nonsectarian position on matters of belief. At the same time, however, it would be dishonest to claim that the Steps are devoid of any theology. While there is nothing like a list of theological principles where tenets of faith are enumerated, a thoughtful reading of the Steps will lead one to conclude that they are indeed based on and espouse a distinct theological position.

In other words, subtlety should not be confused with neutrality. There is a consistent theology to the Twelve Steps, and to pretend otherwise would be to ignore the very Power upon which they draw to facilitate the recovery of the addict.

Of course, the question that now arises is, as we have noted: How is this theology compatible with Judaism? In the chapters that follow, we will take a deeper look, from a Jewish perspective, at what the Steps are actually saying about God.

The “God Steps”

Four of the Steps (3, 5, 6, and 11) explicitly mention God, and two more of them refer to God indirectly, either as “a Power greater than ourselves” (Step Two) or by the pronoun “Him” (Step Seven).

The use of the word “God” four times throughout the Steps—a work that contains only about two hundred words—constitutes a ubiquitous usage. (Indeed, excluding any pronouns, prepositions, and definite or indefinite articles, God is the most repeated word in the Steps.) As such, it’s difficult to imagine that the Steps do not offer some notion of who or what this God is. Moreover, although, as mentioned earlier, it often serves a convenient purpose to act as if the program takes no distinct theological position, to persist in this assertion is simply to discount the facts.

The Steps don’t just refer to God, they also tell us about Him. First, they let us know that He is a Power, and that this Power is greater than ourselves. God is not an idea or an abstraction. He is a force, and He is active. And this force is more powerful than we are. Further, we are told that this Power can actually do something for us—something quite big. It can “restore us to our sanity.” These are all theological statements, and these are all contained just in Step Two. In other words, right away in the Second Step, we have already been told quite a lot about God—not just that He exists, but also about how He manifests Himself in our lives.

The next Step, in which we are told to turn over our will and our lives to His care, tells us even more about God—He cares. That’s another distinct theological position. One can believe in God and not believe that He cares, but this Step tells us, at least implicitly, that He does indeed care. In Step Five, we are told that we can talk to Him; we can speak to Him openly and honestly about ourselves. In Steps 6 and 7, we are told that God can change us, and that we can ask Him to do so. In Step Eleven, we are told that we can consciously engage Him, and that we can ask Him for knowledge of His will, and the power to carry out this will. This, incidentally, also sets forth another very big idea—God has a will. That’s a strong theological statement. And not only does He have a will, but He has a will for us, things He specifically desires from the individual.

Hence, far from existing in a theological vacuum, the Steps actually convey several key ideas about God. These are not to be taken for granted. They are by no means universal to all systems of belief. Not all theologies hold these views, but the program does. He is a Power; He can affect our lives; He is caring; He has a will. In the following chapters of this section, we will look at each of these very important ideas about God, how to see them in the Steps, and how they relate to Jewish belief.


By Shais Taub

With a Capital “P”

The first allusion to God in the Steps is found in Step Two, where He is referred to as “a Power greater than ourselves.” Note the capitalization. It is evident that we are not just talking about any power that happens to be stronger than we are. If that were so, then the recovering person might choose to believe that gravity or electromagnetism could restore his or her sanity. Those powers are greater than we are. We certainly cannot defy their effects. But we also have no reason to believe that they can do anything for us other than blindly impose their influences as dictated by the laws of nature. When we speak about Power—that is, the proper (capitalized) rather than common (uncapitalized) noun—we are talking about a force that transcends all other powers in the universe.

The Zohar says, “Master of the Worlds, You are the Highest of the High, the Causer of Causes.” Maimonides expresses much the same idea in his Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, albeit in a more philosophical tone, where he writes:

[God] is the cause of all that exists . . . and there is no possibility that He does not exist, because without Him, all existence would cease. [Whereas] if we could imagine the absence of all existence other than His, the existence of God would not cease or diminish, for He is self-sufficient, and His existence requires nothing other than Himself.

In other words, although the phrase “a Power greater than ourselves” may lend itself to being interpreted as any power the effects of which are unavoidable, if read in the context of the rest of the Steps it is obvious that the “Power” mentioned in Step Two is not the sun or the ocean tides, but the same God who is explicitly mentioned throughout—the God who restores sanity (Step Two), who cares for the individual (Step Three), who removes character defects (Steps Five, Six and Seven), and who lets His will be known and grants power to the individual to adhere to that will (Step Eleven).

Still more context will be of even greater help to us in understanding the Power alluded to in the Second Step. In the Big Book, just before the Steps are first enumerated, this idea is stated unambiguously: “Without help, it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him now!” (p. 59). Clearly, when Step Two speaks of a Power, it does not mean just any power. It really means the “One.” It means God.

Higher or Highest

One still might ask: if this Power is indeed singular and unique, if it is none other than the Power behind all other powers, then why is it referred to only as “a Power” (with the indefinite article) and not “the Power”? Perhaps the following story will prove illuminating.

A well-known AA old-timer, Clancy I., talks about his early experiences grappling with belief. He relates how he told his sponsor that he could not believe in God. His sponsor asked him whether he could believe in the concept of God and just not use the word “God.” Clancy said that he could not. The sponsor asked him whether he could believe in the power of the AA group. Clancy said that he could not manage to do that either. Finally, the sponsor asked him, “Can you admit that I am doing better than you?” Clancy said that he could. “Congratulations, kid,” said the sponsor, “you’ve just met your new Higher Power.”

More telling than the story itself is its epilogue. Years later, Clancy’s sponsor stopped working the program, got drunk and died. What was Clancy to do now, what with his “Higher Power” being dead and all? Would he lose his direction, his faith? Not at all. As Clancy explains it, by the time he lost his sponsor, Clancy already believed in God. It was his belief in his sponsor as a power greater than himself that was the necessary first move away from self-reliance. Once he was able to accept his dependence upon something outside of his own ego, he had already begun his journey toward finding God.

In other words, it is most probably safe to say that a person can get sober, and work an effective Second Step, just by believing in any power. Indeed, it is often the case that belief in a higher power—any higher power!—is that which marks the nascent beginnings of a process toward discovering the Highest Power. It is the HighestPower that is referred to explicitly in the following Steps, which come right out and unambiguously invoke the word “God.” Therefore, while Step Two does not tell us that we need to believe in God per se, it most certainly begins to lead us in that direction.

I once heard an Al-Anon speaker share a story about a friend of hers, an avowed atheist, who could not “come to believe” and take Step Two.

One day, she was sitting in her kitchen and looking out her window while bemoaning the fact that she could in no way bring herself to believe in any power greater than herself. Her rational mind just wouldn’t allow it. Suddenly, she took notice of a great oak tree that grew on the property, and she began to think, “I could not make that oak tree. That oak tree must be a power greater than myself.” That was her conclusion, and so she began talking to the oak tree, pouring her heart out to the oak tree in times of distress. And she felt better. Well, there came a day when she moved away from that house and had to leave the oak tree behind. She had been years in recovery by that time, and had been pouring her heart out to the oak tree, and now she would have to leave it behind. What happened next, however, left her delighted and surprised. As she said: “I left that house and the oak tree stayed behind. But what do you know? God came with me.”

The point of these stories is not—perish the thought!—to endorse hero worship or animism as a stepping stone to belief in God. Heaven forbid! What I am merely trying to point out is that for all of us, belief is a process. For some, it begins by making only the smallest possible concessions that the rational mind can bear. But if one is honest and one continues seeking, one will find true faith in the end.

In a way, such an evolution of faith is similar to the physicist who searches for a unifying Theory of Everything that would fully explain and connect all known physical phenomena and forces of nature. A scientist looks at gravity, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, and notes their power. However, the question remains, is there a power beyond those powers? And if so, is there a power that is beyond that power too? This method of arriving at faith in God through a gradual process of deduction was exemplified by the spiritual quest of the world’s first champion of monotheism, Abraham. As Maimonides describes in the first chapter of his Laws Concerning the Prohibition of Idolaltry:

[Abraham] was but a small child when his mind began to seek and wonder, “How do the heavenly bodies orbit without a moving force? Who moves them? They cannot move themselves!” . . . His heart sought and then came to know that there is but one God . . . who created all, and that in all existence there is none other than He.

Abraham discovered belief in the One God through a process of looking further and further outside of himself, until arriving at “The Causer of Causes.” When we begin to look beyond our own ego, we have already begun our journey to find God. The unfortunate fact of the matter, however, is that many of us stop short in our quest. We find belief in something beyond ourselves, and rest on our spiritual laurels. In recovery, however, one does not have the luxury of spiritual stagnation. One’s faith must continuously grow. Certainly, for a Jew the belief in the Highest Power, and not just any power, is essential to our faith. We may begin, like Abraham, by searching somewhere “out there,” anywhere beyond the self, but we must always arrive at the realization that ultimately there is One who has all power, and that One is God.

The Unwritten God in the First Step

This idea of looking for power beyond one’s own ego is the content of Step One, in which the addict admits his or her own powerlessness. Thus, in a very important way, the process of finding God as Highest Power subtly begins before Step Two has even introduced the notion of a Higher Power. In other words, before we can begin to honestly look for God as a Power, we have to admit our own limitations. As is often said in recovery circles, “There is a God . . . and you are not Him.”

It might be useful to note that Chassidut teaches that the opposite of serving God is not idolatry but the service of self. At least idolaters turn to an entity outside of themselves, whereas egomaniacs—and addicts, almost by definition, fit that profile—cannot peacefully defer to anyone or anything aside from their own egos. Thus, the mental shift that is most critical and urgent is that of the addict’s adherence to the simple piece of advice often heard in the rooms: “Get out of your own head.”

The Talmud relates that God says of an arrogant person, “It is impossible for him and Me to dwell in the same place.” Although God is omnipresent, His presence cannot be felt where there is haughtiness and pride.

To allow the Power of God into one’s life, one must first acquiesce to the fact of his or her own lack of power. The story is told that when the famed Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk was but a small child he was asked, “Where is God?” To which the young rabbi-to-be replied, “Wherever you let Him in.” This same idea is expressed by the midrashic saying, “You cannot pour into a cup that is already full.” In other words, God will always fill whatever space we make for Him, but He will not intrude where He is clearly unwelcome. In order to experience God’s Power in Step Two, one first makes a “power vacuum” in Step One. This recognition of the limits of personal power sets the scene for entering into a relationship with that which is Unlimited Power.

God Almighty

If in Step One you become ready to meet God, then in Step Two you actually meet Him. But why does the first reference to God in the Steps allude to Him as “Power”?

One might answer that since “God” is a word fraught with so many connotations and one that evokes so many prejudices, it just works better to ease into it, and not to use the word “God” right away. This is a valid point. For many people, “God” can be a “scare word,” as in the old Jewish tale of the rabbi who tells the atheist, “My son, don’t worry. The same God that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

But this still does not answer our question. Why allude to God specifically as a Power, and not by any other word that one might also use to refer to God?

One might answer that since Step One calls for the individual to admit his or her own lack of power, it logically follows that Step Two should introduce God as the one who has the power. But there seems to be more to it than that.

There’s a saying in recovery: “Don’t tell God how big your addiction is; tell your addiction how big God is.” The disease of addiction—regardless of drug of choice—is essentially an obsession with power. The addict wants control, and finds it in the altering of his or her state by indulging in the addictive behavior. Hence, in order to recover, the addict must surrender this desire for control. But surrender it to what? To God? But what is God? The likelihood that surrender will be effective as a means for treating addiction depends entirely on one’s concept of God. Simply put, the idea that God can heal the addict seems true only if the God of one’s conception is a God to whom one can worthily surrender one’s own power. God may be many things to many people, but for the recovering addict, God must before all else be Power.

Indeed, this may be the reason that the practice of religion by itself is usually inadequate in treating addiction. One can believe in God, and even practice some form of devotion to Him, but if one does not come to believe in God as Power, then there is nothing to which the addict can surrender control. While there may be many religions or belief systems that view God as the archetype of many such abstractions as Love, Wisdom and Peace, in recovery God is the quintessence of Power, and is introduced as such even before He is introduced by the name “God.”

The medieval Jewish philosopher, Judah Ha-Levi, explains in The Kuzari why the first commandment of the Decalogue states, “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of Egypt.” Why did God not introduce Himself as “The Lord your God, who created the heaven and the earth”? Surely that is a far more impressive credential. Ha-Levi answers that God chose to introduce Himself in the way that would be most relevant to those whom He was addressing. The concept of creation seems too abstract, dare we say, too impersonal, to serve as a basis of a relationship. The Exodus, on the other hand, demonstrated God’s direct involvement in the affairs of man—that God did not just make the world, but that He is involved in it as well, and is all-powerful to act within it as He wishes. In other words, the Jewish relationship with God is predicated upon God’s role not as Creator but as Power.

I once spoke to a young man who had been in and out of recovery for about a year, and had not managed to put together any significant amount of clean time. He called me because he said that he needed to believe in a Higher Power, but that he lacked the background to be able to figure out who or what that was. I asked him to describe for me the God of his understanding. He told me that, as he understood it, God was compassionate, just and wise. I told him that, according to our tradition, all of those descriptions were apt, but that he had left out the most important one. He grappled, to no avail, to find the magic word that I was waiting to hear. I told him, “You say that you came to me because you wanted to find your Higher Power. If your Higher Power is God, then why don’t you mention that God is powerful?”

We began to discuss various mystical concepts that describe God’s absolute control over the universe. Chassidut is replete with analogies and examples illustrating how God did not just create the world, but that He continues to exert absolute control over every detail of reality. I told him about the Jewish mystical concept of “ongoing creation”—that even now, God is bringing the universe into existence out of absolute void and nothing. As God continually creates something out of nothing, He places everything exactly where He wants it—at this very second. Without this constant imposition, all of creation would revert to nothingness. As such, there is no automatic pilot; God is always in control. In the lingo of recovery, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 417).

Although he found our discussion intellectually stimulating, the young man stated that “in his heart,” he could not bring himself to believe in this kind of omnipotence. I asked him, “What good is it to you to have a God who is compassionate, just and wise if He is unable to exercise His compassion, justice and wisdom whenever and however He likes? How can such a weakling restore you to your sanity, let alone be deemed worthy of having you give your life and will over to him?” The young man was open to many ideas about God, but for whatever reason, he could not accept God as Power. The last I heard from him, he was still trying to figure out God—and he was still trying to get sober.

God cannot be an abstraction. We can describe Him with all the great and lofty terms we can think of, but if we cannot see Him as an active force in our lives, then we have not even begun to know what God is. My teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, delivered most of his public addresses in Yiddish. But whenever he spoke in English, he would always refer to God with the somewhat unusual phrase “God Almighty”—though this was not a direct translation of the term for God that he most often used in his first language. There is something telling about this. When we speak of God—particularly in a secular language lacking an adequate lexicon for divine concepts—we must underscore that God is Power, that He is not just “God”—whatever that means to us—but “God Almighty.”


By Shais Taub

God’s Care

We have established that the God spoken of in the Steps is first and foremost a God of Power. But power does not necessarily convey beneficence. God may be strong, but is He good? In the Third Step, where we find the first use of the actual word “God,” we also find the answer to this question. God is not just the epitome of power; He is the essence of goodness as well.

The Third Step enjoins us to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God . . .” The word care is significant. Step Three is a surrender step—in recovery parlance, what is called “turning it over” or “letting go and letting God.” In theory, one could just as well be enjoined to surrender to the power of God or to the authority of God. Were God only all-powerful and not also good, that would still provide amply sufficient cause to submit to Him. Yet, the Third Step adds a vital dimension to the recovering addict’s concept of God. We “turn it over” to God, not just because He is stronger than we are, but also because He will take better care of us than we can.

Jewish tradition discusses the idea that, at least in theory, God could have chosen to relate to us only as a Power. In reality, however, He chooses to relate to His creation from a position of kindness as well. The Midrash says: “At first, God had thought to create the world solely with the attribute of stern judgment. He foresaw, however, that the world would not endure that way, and thus coupled with it the attribute of compassionate mercy.” In other words, if God had created a world in which He were present only as a Higher Power but not as a source of caring, that world would not be able to last. Judaism sees a world in which God is all-powerful but not kind as an impossibility, nothing more than a hypothetical construct that cannot actually exist. In this light, the very existence of the world is, in and of itself, a testimony to the fact that God is not just powerful but also kind.

Knowing and Nurturing

The word care connotes two distinct but equally important meanings. One meaning of the word care is “attentiveness.” To care about something means to pay it mind, to be concerned. It is the opposite of indifference. Another meaning of care is “nurturing.” To care for something means to look after it. Thus, the word careimplies both attentiveness and nurturing.

Let’s first speak about God’s attentiveness. When we say that God “pays attention,” we are referring to his omniscience. “Does He that made the ear not hear? Does He that fashioned the eye not see?” (Psalms 94:9). If God is aware of anything, then He is aware of everything. For the Infinite, there is no such thing as having His attention divided, or being preoccupied, overwhelmed or distracted. It is axiomatic that the God who knows His creation knows every detail therein with intimate knowledge.

Maimonides goes as far as to consider this one of the most basic tenets of belief: “God knows the actions of people and does not ignore them. It is not like those who say (Ezekiel 8:12), ‘God has abandoned the earth’” (Principles of Faith). Those who are aware of the historical context of Maimonides’ writings know that this declaration of God’s omniscience was a direct refutation of the popular thinking of the time, which held that God was unconcerned with the affairs of man. This view of a lofty and aloof God was carried down from the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, whose ideas still very much dominate Western attitudes of today. They believed that God’s eternal unchangingness necessitates that He be completely unconcerned by a temporal world that is continuously in a state of flux. In other words, if God is unchanging, then how can He have a conscious relationship with that which is always changing? The Jewish view, in contrast, dismisses this as a nonargument. God’s being Infinite and One does not exist apartfrom creation; rather, creation exists within Him. As such, God, in knowing Himself, knows His creation. In the words of Maimonides (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah), “All existences besides the Creator—from the highest [spiritual] form to a tiny gnat in the belly of the earth—exist by virtue of His reality. In knowing His own reality, He thus knows everything.”

In layman’s terms: God does not need to be detached from His creation in order to be timeless. When God takes note of what is going on in the world, it’s not like a person who gets caught up in counting the cracks in the ceiling tiles, and is mentally absorbed in something outside of himself. God pays attention to the world because the world exists within Him. He knows Himself thoroughly, and thus knows every aspect of His world.

This belief that God is always paying attention is crucial to recovery. In order to recover, we must be willing to do something that is very scary: we need to step aside from playing God in our own lives, and place ourselves unreservedly in God’s care. Program literature voices this sentiment in no uncertain terms. “Abandon yourself to God as you understand God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 164). How could a person—particularly one who is so used to trying to control every aspect of life—possibly find peace by surrendering to a God who is indifferent or unknowing? The God who keeps the recovering addict sober, sane and alive must be a God who can be counted on to care. And this care is not relegated to only some aspects of life. If one were to believe that God has limited or selective knowledge of His creation, then one could release to God only those things that one believes are relevant or interesting to Him. (And who could know a thing like that?) But the addict’s recovery is based upon his or her freedom to turn everything over to the care of God, and to do so without reservation. Surrender that is conditional, incomplete, or later reneged is deemed “taking back one’s will”—a sort of anti–Third Step, or Third Step in reverse, as it were. Whereas the Third Step, taken properly, means a decision to trust that in all matters God does, without a doubt, care.

This brings us to the second meaning of the word care. As mentioned, caring also means “nurturing.” The idea of God as Caregiver is just as central to Judaism as any other conception of God, including that of Creator or King. Indeed, as noted above, a world without God’s compassion and kindness could not exist. Furthermore, God’s goodness is not just a necessary component of creation, but also the underlying and primary impetus for its existence. As Kabbalah explains, God created the world “in order to bestow goodness upon His creations, for it is the nature of the Good to do good.”

It is interesting that Judaism, particularly Kabbalah, uses blatantly feminine terminology to describe God’s role as Nurturer, evoking images of God as a loving mother. The name for God’s immanent presence, shechinah, is unmistakably feminine. It is this name that is used in describing how the divine presence accompanies Her children wherever they go, even into the darkness of exile, as in the Talmud’s statement: “See how beloved are Israel before God, for in every place where they were sent away, the shechinah went with them.”

When viewed in this light, the idea of giving oneself over to “the care of God” is one that evokes feelings of comfort, peace and security—feelings that are pleasant for all people, but essential for the person in recovery. It is said that addicts have little tolerance for discomfort, hence the intensely felt reflex to self-medicate that can be triggered by the slightest feeling of uneasiness (or by none at all). The remarkable efficacy of spiritual consciousness as a means of recovery may, in large part, be explained by the serenity that it offers, which the addict needs so direly. This serenity is contingent upon a belief in a caring, nurturing God who always does good.

Everything Is Good

Combining what we have learned about God in Steps 2 and 3, we now have a “God of our understanding,” who is—in theological parlance—omnipotent (Power), omniscient (cares about) and omnibenevolent (cares for). Now we are faced with a problem. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, then why is there suffering in the world? In other words, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But this is hardly a novel question. Throughout the ages, much ink has been spilled in attempts at resolving this conundrum. Thankfully, we will not rehash any of those arguments here. Philosophers may choose to grapple with this question, but believers seem to take a different, more practical approach to dealing with the existence of pain and suffering in God’s world.

Anyone who knows a good many people with quality, long-term sobriety has certainly noticed a remarkable characteristic that all such people seem to have in common—an almost uncanny equanimity to life’s ups and downs. Even more astounding is how opposite this is from the addict’s nature, which, as we have mentioned, is abnormally irascible, moody and hypersensitive. It seems that the recovering addict no longer searches in vain for an answer to the “why do bad things happen?” question. Indeed, it seems that he or she has come to regard it as quite the nonquestion. The real question is, “Do bad things happen at all?” This is not a word game. This is an expression of humility and faith. Can I really say that something is bad because I don’t like it?

The Baal Shem Tov described this attitude of trust as the constant awareness of God’s presence. The Psalmist says (16:8), “I have set God before me at all times.” The Ba’al Shem Tov relates the Hebrew word for “I have set”—shivviti—to the word shaveh, meaning “equal,” and explains that one who sets God before him is one for whom “no matter what, whether people praise you or shame you . . . it is all ‘equal’ . . . Whether you eat delicacies or other things, it is all ‘equal’ . . . Whatever happens, you say, ‘This too comes from God, and must therefore be all right.’ ” The Baal Shem Tov then adds, “[But] this is a very high level.” In assuming this attitude—that nothing that happens in one’s life can truly be deemed bad—the recovering addict attains a rare level of acceptance and trust, which most men and women seem to be able to live without. The addict, however, in order to live, is forced to utterly abandon the notion that if I don’t like something it can’t be good, and if it’s good, I am sure to like it.

In the Talmud, this sentiment is expressed by Rabbi Akiva’s adage: “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.”

The Talmud relates a story in which Rabbi Akiva’s attitude was put to the test. He was once traveling and came to a walled city, where he sought shelter, but the people of the city refused to let him in. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good,” and went to sleep in a field outside of the city walls. He had been traveling with three items—a donkey, a rooster and a lamp. Soon, a lion came and devoured his donkey. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.” A cat came and ate his rooster. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.” A wind came and blew out his lamp. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.” In the morning, he discovered that during the night a band of marauders had come and attacked the city. Had he been allowed to sleep there, he would have met the same dismal fate as the others. Had the marauders heard his donkey bray or his rooster crow, he would have been spotted; certainly, if they had seen his lamp, they would have found him right away. Thus, all of the seemingly unfortunate events that happened that night saved Rabbi Akiva’s life. Indeed, everything that happened was for the good. The Talmud’s message is that man, with his limited vision, cannot possibly see the true significance of earthly events. He must therefore withhold his subjective evaluation of things, and accept the events of his life with the faith that God knows all, can do all, and is the essence of good.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that nothing happens in this world by chance. Rather, God carefully orchestrates every detail of His creation by means of hashgachah peratit—literally, “individualized supervision,” but more loosely translated as divine providence. “Even when the wind carries a fallen leaf from one place to another,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “that, too, is hashgachah peratit.” No detail of creation is left to chance. I once heard an alcoholic state emphatically that his “H.P.” was guiding every aspect of his life. I couldn’t figure out how he knew about the concept of hashgachah peratit, let alone the Hebrew term for it. Later, it dawned on me that “H.P.” meant “Higher Power.” Even later, it dawned on me that there really isn’t any difference.


By Shais Taub

God’s “Secret”

So, God is powerful, and God is kind. God can be trusted and relied upon to carry us through whatever vicissitudes life brings. However, all of this assumes that our relationship with Him is in proper order. What if we have severed or damaged our connection to God? Can it be repaired? Is God willing to give us a second chance? Tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness are indispensable to the survival of any intimate relationship—even more so in our relationship with God. We must know that we are never beyond redemption, that we are able to re-establish our bond with Him at any time, no matter what we have done to distance ourselves from Him in the past.

In Steps 5, 6 and 7, the recovering addict is guided through a process of removing the blockages that impede his or her connection to God. The very fact that this process is prescribed implies that God, for His part, is willing to restore the damaged relationship. These Steps make clear a presupposition that God is tolerant and forgiving. As the prophet Ezekiel (33:11) exhorted the people, “[God] takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn away from their ways and live.”

This is another distinct theological stance. The fact that God is willing to have a relationship with imperfect beings is not an idea that should be taken for granted. It was only after Mosesbeseeched God to forgive the people for the seemingly unforgivable sin of the Golden Calf that God revealed to Moses the secret of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. God told Moses that whenever the people were in need of compassion, they could invoke His Attributes of Mercy by enumerating them as follows:

God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth; preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error . . . Who cleanses . . . (Exodus 34:6–7) The Talmud says, “Were this not an explicit verse, we could never have said such a thing on our own.” In other words, if God Himself had not divulged this secret to Moses, we would have no reason to assume that God is willing to bear our imperfections or to reconcile with those who have transgressed His will.

In addition to the above verses in Exodus, the Zohar points to another passage in Scripture that also contains Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The “Superior Thirteen Attributes,” as they are called, are found in the writings of the prophet Micah (7:18–20):

Who is a God like You, who bears transgression, and pardons the wrongdoing of the remnant of His inheritance? He does not sustain His anger forever, for He desires lovingkindness. He will, once more, have compassion on us, [and] forget our transgressions; and You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the ocean. Grant truth to Jacob, [and] lovingkindness to Abraham, as You vowed to our forefathers long ago.

The sixteenth-century Kabbalist Moses Cordovero elucidates the meaning of each of these attributes as follows:

1. “Who is a God like You”—God enlivens us even when we choose to misappropriate this vitality.

2. “Who bears transgression”—God protects us from being consumed by the negativity that we have unleashed, thus giving us the opportunity to return to Him.

3. “And pardons the wrongdoing”—When we return to Him, God cleanses us.

4. “Of the remnant of His heritage”—God empathizes with our pain, for we are His “inheritance.”

5. “He does not sustain His anger forever”—God allows Himself to be appeased.

6. “For He desires loving-kindness”—God lovingly emphasizes our merits, not our deficiencies.

7. “He will once more have compassion on us”—God grants a fresh start to those who return to Him.

8. “[And] forget our transgressions”—God chooses to “forget” our past misdeeds, so that they do not interfere with our present relationship with Him.

9. “And You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the ocean”—God views our mistakes as expendable.

10. “Grant truth to Jacob”—God is kind even to those who uphold only the basic letter of the law, which is personified by Jacob.

11. “[And] loving-kindness to Abraham”—God displays generosity, as did our forefather Abraham.

12. “As You vowed to our forefathers”—God conveys merit upon us that is not our own but that of our ancestors.

13. “Long ago”—When not even the merit of our ancestors is sufficient, God remembers His original love for His people.

Forgiveness vs. Atonement

It is clear from the wording of Steps 5, 6 and 7 that their aim is not just to assist us in obtaining pardon or expiation of guilt. Their main purpose is to fully restore our relationship with God. Judaism calls this process kapparah, which means “cleansing” or “atonement,” and is very different than plain forgiveness. As soon as a person mends his or her ways (and makes restitution, when necessary), God immediately forgives. But that does not mean that the damage to the relationship has been repaired. If your teenaged son takes the car out without permission and gets into a fender-bender, you may not punish him if he is sufficiently contrite, but that does not mean that your full trust for him has been reinstated. Forgivenessmeans just the waiving of punishment, but atonement is complete reconciliation. Indeed, the origin of the English word atonement is “at-one-ment”—the state of being “at one,” again, with God.

What Steps 5, 6 and 7 indicate is that God makes Himself available for reconciliation. Just as we want to be “at one” with Him, He wants to be “at one” with us, and He is ready to accept us despite our past failings. This is unmistakably the sentiment that underlies the “Seventh Step Prayer”:

“My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that You now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 76)

Judaism teaches that God has no interest in using our failings against us to push us even further away from Him. He is not like a mortal of flesh and blood who holds a grudge, nor does He spurn us for being imperfect. To the contrary, God willingly accepts all those who return to Him. In the words of King David: “. . . a broken and a contrite heart, You, God, will not despise” (Psalms 51:19).

A Dynamic Relationship

On the other hand, as the wording of the Seventh Step Prayer implies, although God is open to our advances should we turn to Him, He does not force us to do so. He waits for us to be ready and willing. When we do approach Him, He not only reciprocates, He also multiplies the effect of our efforts.

Our sages conveyed this thought in many ways:

God says, “My children, make for Me an opening the size of an eye of a needle, and I will make for you openings big enough for wagons and carriages to pass through.”

One who comes to purify oneself is then granted ample assistance from on high.

One who sanctifies oneself even a small bit down in this world is then greatly sanctified from heaven. This also brings us to appreciate another aspect of our concept of God—His humility. Yes, God is humble. And what is humility but making space for another?

God makes the process of reunion and reconciliation conditional on our approaching Him. Rather than dominating us, God allows us to have an active and defining role in our relationship with Him. In the case of Steps 5, 6 and 7, we have to be truthful with Him about our faults (Step Five); we have to be ready to change (Step Six); and we have to ask for His help (Step Seven). In short, just as God grants us the freedom to stray from Him, He gives us the freedom to seek means of returning. In either case, He has given us room to make our own choice.

We might say that God has entered into a dynamic and collaborative relationship with His creations. He has actually made us partners with Him. There is a Chassidic interpretation of the verse (Genesis 1:26), “And God said, ‘Let us make man . . .’” as God’s call to each and every one of us. God says to each one of us, “Let’s make a man.” God invites the individual to be a partner in the process of his or her own development as a human being. This is key to our understanding of God. Many of us can admit that God must really be great, but we can’t imagine that He would want to have a relationship with someone like us. Of course, this kind of sanctimonious despair is really just an excuse to leave God out of our lives. Sometimes we like to say that God is mean and intolerant, so that we can give up on Him. That is why it is vital that we know that God does not give up on us.

When God created the world, He was not starting a business. He was entering into a relationship. We are not just God’s employees; we are His children. A business needs to make a profit, and employees who don’t pull their weight are let go. A family is different. A parent doesn’t disown a child for “underperforming” or “failing to produce.” Indeed, there is no such concept in a healthy and loving family. To the contrary, when a child strays—even the most vexing and troublesome child—no loving parent will say, “Good riddance.” The parent waits for the child’s return, and experiences great pleasure when the child chooses to do so.

In other words, God has certain expectations for His children. He wants us to live good lives and to treat each other kindly. He wants us to be obedient to Him—but more than He wants any of those things, He wants us to be close to Him. God’s greatest desire is not that His children behave perfectly, but that they come back home. Hence, even when we have violated His will in other ways, His most intense desire remains His will for us to remain connected to Him. This brings us to the very important discussion of God’s will.