I sat in a small circle with men and women of all stripes: Physicians, musicians, pilots, stock brokers, 19-year-old kids, stay-at-home moms, and little league dads. They told their stories with pain and shame in their eyes. They were alcoholics and drug addicts, seeking refuge at the Betty Ford Center in California as they tried to put their lives back together.
It is the idea of powerlessness that resonated with me most deeply. Powerlessness sits at the core of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a program of recovery that has been adopted by addiction centers throughout the world, including Betty Ford. The central precepts of AA are the 12 Steps. At Betty Ford these steps were displayed, Ten Commandments-esque, in nearly every room. Step Number 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” This first step serves as a starting point for recovery in the AA program. By accepting powerlessness, addicts can open themselves to a Higher Power and allow that Power to save them from addiction and remove their character defects.
As a future clinician I was impressed by the evidence indicating that the Alcoholics Anonymous system of spiritual transformation is successful at treating the disease of addiction. AA has helped millions of people recover from a sickness that would otherwise have killed them or left them with nothing to live for. But it wasn’t only my professional interest that was sparked by AA. I also found insight into myself as a human being and as a Jew. I came to believe that powerlessness is at the core of Jewish spirituality, much as it sits at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. Judaism elevates mankind to a godly status as a master of the natural world, formed in the Divine Image, endowed with the power to choose. Man is expected to exert free will to make moral choices, choices with profound consequences. So how can Man of moral choice, the exalted godly human being of Jewish philosophy, be powerless?
This question leads to the paradox of free will. On one hand we seem to think independently and decide for ourselves. But, on the other hand, all is preordained, a product of cause and effect.
Some of us may even be destined to become addicts; evidence points to a genetic predisposition for alcoholism that lurks within some of us. But we can see predestination even beyond our genes. The environment we grew up in, our life experiences, our childhood friends, our parents–and even our parents’ parents–all shape us, profoundly influencing our choices. From the perspective of Newtonian physics, which has deeply influenced the modern worldview, reality works like dominos: Once the first domino is flicked, the force of that flick gets carried down the line. The only thing the other dominos can do is fall in turn. All is predetermined from that first flick and free will is an illusion.
Yet on the other hand we do have free will. At the very least our subjective experience of free will plays an important role in our lives; maybe our sense of free will is itself meaningful. Or maybe we can go further and draw from quantum mechanics, that strange new science in which uncertainty is a fundamental principle. From a quantum perspective each juncture in our lives contains several possible options; we can make choices which determine our course.
The question of free will is not abstract philosophy. It is something that likely haunts every religious man and women, or indeed any human being attempting to abide by a moral code. It certainly has haunted this author.
We try to live a good life, to do right by others and by our Creator. Yet we are tempted, and we fail, again, and again, and again. We see negative traits in ourselves, character defects that we’ve had since childhood, from the womb perhaps. We see influences around us that compel us in ways that we can’t imagine surmounting. Yet at the same time we feel, and we are taught, that we do have choice and that we are responsible for our choices.
This taunting paradox pervades Jewish life. Every day, Jewish prayer proclaims that “He will place within our hearts love and awe, to do His will.” Indeed, the Talmud teaches that, were it not for Divine assistance, it would be impossible for Man to resist the temptations of the Evil Inclination (Sukkah, 52B). How can we believe that we will be held responsible for our choices and yet exclaim that our actions are in the Creator’s hands?
This conflict manifests itself clearly in alcoholism, a disease of the brain where the ability to choose is impaired. While, on one level, alcoholics are making a choice to drink, a choice with moral implications that may deeply impact others, they may not have the ability to choose otherwise. They are neurologically, and sometimes genetically, destined to pick up the bottle and act on the demons that emerge from it.
As I sat in on AA-style therapy sessions at Betty Ford, listening to stories of addiction and contemplating free will, I came upon a deep insight: Perhaps the only true choice we can make is to nullify our will to something beyond ourselves. And this nullification, this acceptance of powerlessness, is paradoxically exalted. By connecting our will to the Ultimate Will, we are channeling our Divine Image, allowing the Creator to act through us.
I’d seen this concept of nullification to the Divine Will many times before in Jewish teachings. The Ethics of the Fathers urges us to “make His Will your will, and negate your will before His” (Pirke Avot,II, 4). But without embracing powerlessness I was never able to wrap my head or heart around this. And so whenever I would face temptation, I would revert to a conviction in my own power and I would attempt to fight, to coerce myself into avoiding sin. Inevitably my struggle would only strengthen temptation, feeding it with energy.
Since my experience with AA I have begun to explore falling back into powerlessness. When I pass the fight on to a Power greater than myself it becomes much easier to make the right choice. I even feel a hint of serenity, a word often found in AA literature. This powerlessness thing may sound simplistic; it is indeed a simple concept intellectually. Yet it requires an emotional leap, a complete acceptance of the fact that we ultimately have no control.
There is a well known phrase in Jewish thought, often translated as “everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b). Now I see this teaching in a fresh light. The word translated here as “fear,” or alternatively “awe,” יראה, resembles the word ראה, “see.” On a certain level we may be powerless to decide on our actions. But we can make a choice about our perceptions, how we see things. When we see clearly that we are biological beings, animals with no control over our base inclinations, we can accept that we would not be able to overcome temptation without help from beyond nature, from a Power greater than ourselves.
So for anyone else struggling to be a good person, or a good Jew, perhaps try embracing, without reservations, your own powerlessness. Let a Power greater than yourself take on the animal within you instead of trying to fight it yourself. It really works! Just ask a recovering addict.