Parallels Between Yom Kippur and the 12 Steps

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Recovery from addiction is a journey unlike any other. But for those in the Jewish community, some of that journey might seem rather  familiar, especially if they attended Yom Kippur services. After all, both the day of repentance and traditional 12-step recovery programs  emphasize self-reflection, accountability and the desire to move  forward without repeating past mistakes.

In 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, after completing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” (step 4) and determining “the exact nature of our wrongs” (step 5), a person working the 12 steps creates a list of those they’ve harmed (step 8) to make “direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or  others” (step 9). Even after a period of  sobriety, a person in recovery continues to take personal inventories.

Howard Reznick of JCS (Susan C. Ingram)

Howard Reznick, 65, who manages prevention education services at Jewish Community Services, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, draws a direct parallel  from the 12 steps to the teachings of Rambam, also known as Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides.

“Maimonides in the way of repentance is to verbalize out loud what the error in judgment was and then to ask the other person for forgiveness,” Reznick said. “One is obligated to do that on at least three different occasions if that person is unwilling to accept their apology.”

Zach Snitzer, 39, co-founder of the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center in Towson, also sees some Yom Kippur-12-step parallels, but says the holiday is more like steps 6 and 7.

“It’s not apples to apples in that Yom Kippur is more about introspection, more personal,” Snitzer said, adding that while step 9 is more of a direct action step, steps 6 and 7, in which a person becomes ready to have God remove defects of character and asks for their removal, are more aligned with the introspection of Yom Kippur.

While introspection is important, Snitzer points out that for those suffering from addiction, and even those in recovery, too much introspection can be harmful.

Zach Snitzer, 39, is the co-founder of the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center.

“One of the issues that people in  recovery have had based on active addiction is the sort of madness of the mind,” said Snitzer, who is in recovery himself. “Introspection actually gets me into a lot more trouble than a normal person. It’s the idea of creating stories in your mind, which can lead to resentments. Most people that walk the Earth are able to use personal introspection and have the ability go out and make amends on their own. It’s that spiritual malady, that disconnection of an addict without support and help that makes taking regular action necessary. It’s a constant maintenance.”

Interestingly, the rabbis echo this sentiment. In Chaim Miller’s adaptation of the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “Learning the Art of Forgiveness from Moshe,” Miller quotes Maimonides: “Teshuvah and Yom  Kippur only achieve atonement for sins between man and G-d. … However, sins between man and his fellow man … are not forgiven until compensation is paid … and the person has been asked for  forgiveness.”

For Mike Silberman, 34, co-founder of Amatus Health, an umbrella company that operates treatment facility centers across the region, waiting until the High Holidays to make amends isn’t a viable option.

“Once we have that awareness of having done something wrong, it’s difficult to pretend like it’s not happening,” said Silberman, who has who has been in recovery  for more than 13 years. “That ability  to take personal responsibility for our own actions is certainly a blessing and corresponds directly to step 9 where we make the initial amends, but also step 10 where it happens on a more regular basis. Hopefully, when it gets to Yom Kippur, there won’t be anything to repent for  because we’ve done it over the course of the year.”

Rachel Markus of Mount Washington, 36, clinical director of Foundations Recovery Center in Woodlawn, also points to the importance of making frequent amends for people in recovery, as opposed to waiting for one day per year.

“Addiction inherently has the potential to cause a lot more negative effects in a person like guilt and shame,” said Markus, who is in recovery herself. “People that have  addiction have these feelings of discomfort that can often be triggers to either drink or use drugs again to escape. It’s a much more acute issue. They can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll deal with this when the holidays come.’ It’s much more about learning how to deal with negative feelings in a more immediate way.”

As Reznick points out, many Jews say supplicatory prayers asking God for forgiveness, which are recited as part of the regular prayer service three times a day. And in fact, asking God forgiveness is an integral part of daily Jewish practice.

“There is a set of prayers that one does bedside before going to sleep,” said Reznick. “In the first paragraph it says, ‘If I have wronged someone, let them forgive me, and if someone has wronged me, let me forgive them.’”

Anyone can benefit from the principles of 12-step recovery programs, Reznick adds, even those not struggling with addiction.

“In my marriage of many years, if I did something really dumb, in the past I would defend it and it would take me three days to cop to it. But in recovery if you screw up there’s a time-out where you need to be honest and own it and ask to be forgiven,” he said. “The 12 steps have really informed my spiritual  sensibilities.”


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