A 12-Step History? Not so fast.

Amy Levin: When religion in the news bestows a chance to show how complicated history can be, I’ll take it. Rabbi Shais Taub recently published an article in HuffPost Religion on Judaism and addiction recovery, explaining just how spiritually high some steps are in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. Taub has some compelling insights into the very spiritually fragile nature of recovering addicts, but what his post arguably lacks is the rich history of 12-step programs in America’s expansive and vivid religious landscape.

Taub traces the spiritual insights of the “pioneers of AA” to Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, and though Jung extensively influenced our ideas of the religious nature of the psyche, the 12-step program’s roots go even further. In his compelling book, Jews and the American Soul, Andrew Heinze illustrates that extensive cultural borrowing from Jewish culture took place throughout history; Aristotle, early 20th century Hasidic conceptions of good and evil, Benjamin Franklin, American Puritanism, and others. Heinze explains in his chapter on “Benjamin Franklin in Hebrew,” that Franklin devised and published a chart of 13 virtues which acted as a tool to cultivate moral perfection and self-improvement. Travelling further than he imagined, Franklin’s list of virtues was appropriated by a Polish enlightenment thinker, Menachem Mendel Lefin, who published an ethical treatise in 1808 for the education of Polish yeshiva boys, called Accounting for the Soul (Chesbon ha-Nefesh). Both of these texts gained further consumption and popularization among their wider communities. Furthermore, Heinze suggests that both American Protestant and European Jewish moral traditions share an affinity of values because both ethical traditions historically derive from Aristotelian ethics.  Complicated indeed!

To plead against anachronism, I’m not promoting images of 350 B.C. Greece with the headline, “hello my name is Athena and I’m an alcoholic.” Clearly, cultures throughout history have reshaped and renumbered the 12-steps. We should however be wary of the search for true origins, as with say, the debate over which president really spearheaded the search and demise of bin Laden. But what Heinze does effectively point to, is that while the spiritual component to the 12-step program is one element we commonly overlook (as Taub tells us), the 12-steps also offer us the chance to explore and complicate the intersections and relationships between Jews, Christians, and the Americanization of religious practices.

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