Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Americanization of Mussar: Abraham Twerski's Twelve Steps


Standing at the crossroads of religion and psychotherapy, mussar and Twelve Step recovery, the Jewish and the mass market, Abraham Twerski is a rare case study of intellectual and cultural interchange between Judaism and American society. Twerski's work has not yet been examined as a historical and cultural phenomenon. [2] Therefore, I want to introduce Abraham Twerski as a suitable and even tantalizing subject for scholars and, in so doing, to propose that this Hasidic psychiatrist signifies a major, twentieth-century American shift in the venerable tradition of mussar, Jewish ethical teachings. My essay explores two questions: What changes in the Jewish view of human nature are embodied in his writing? Which elements of American thought and culture does he adapt and incorporate into the mussar tradition? Working in the heart of what one historian has dubbed an "Alcoholic Republic," Twerski adopted the concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous, through which he gained new insight into both the human condition and Jewish tradition. [3]


  1. The problem with 12 Step programs is that they are based on the assumption that a person cannot redeem himself; that he needs salvation from without. That may be a valid assumption with respect to addiction (which I could picture R' Dessler defining as a struggle well beyond his concept of "free will point"). But as a general approach to life, I think it shows AA's roots in the Oxford Groups and early 20th cent Christian revivalism.

    An adaptation that would feel more Jewish to me would be to define one's "Higher Power" that saves to be the beris, the covenant between G-d and Man, rather than G-d Himself. It is our job to do (in Litvisher thought, the job we were created in order to do!), even though we have to turn to Him for help.

    As a side note, less true of R' Dr Twersky than some other writers of that genre... Many of these books are self-help books that draw from Torah sources to make their point. Mussar, as I see it, is the pursuit of becoming the person the Torah teaches me that Hashem wants me to be. Self-help is getting rid of those character flaws that get in the way of being who I want to be -- my happiness, my success professionally or as a parent, etc... The two often overlap, but too many books reinforce a narcissism, a self-focus on me and my character. In mussar, the ideal is in terms of how one connects to the Almighty and gives to other people, and thus while it's all about self-refinement, the notion of the refined self is other-focused.


  2. I find the article very frustrating. I can't help but think that the impression its author has of what he refers to as "classical" mussar is overly negative and ends up being used as a straw man.

  3. I don't know if it's a strawman, or just stale. R' Yisrael Salanter's mussar was pretty bleak, and the earlier years of Kelm weren't much better. People sitting in dark rooms singing words of mussar to mournful tunes and thinking about the day of death...

    It wasn't until the militancy of Novhardok and the majesty of Slabodka that things changed. And, it seems, impacted Kelm as well.

    But early mussar was bleak, and if you didn't notice the shift, it would be a motivation to eschew the movement.

    See R' Dov Katz's Pulmus haMussar. They won't print it anymore -- it doesn't fit today's hagiography to document infighting from the old country. But there is a copy on

    Also, here is a quote from R' JB Solovetichik's Halakhic Man (excerpts from pp. 74-76):

    "The emotion of fear, the sense of lowliness, the melancholy so typical of homo religious, self-negation, constant self-appraisal, the consciousness of sin, self-lacerating torments, etc, etc constituted the primary features of the movement’s spiritual profile in its early years. . . . The halakhic men of Brisk and Volozhin sensed that this whole mood posed a profound contradiction to the Halakha and would undermine its very foundations. Halakhic man fears nothing. For he swims in the sea of the Talmud, that life-giving sea to all the living. If a person has sinned, then the Halakhah of repentance will come to his aid. One must not waste time on spiritual self-appraisal, on probing introspections, and on the picking away at the 'sense' of sin. Such a psychic analysis brings man neither to fear nor to love of God nor, most fundamental of all, to the knowledge and cognition of the Torah.
    In all truth and fairness it should be emphasized that when the Musar movement reached a state of maturity in the Yeshiva Knesset Israel under the directorship of R Nathan Zvi Finkel and in the Mir Yeshiva under the spiritual guidance of R Yeruham Lebovitz, it assumed an entirely different form and aproached the world perspective of the great halachic men. The fear, the terror, the melancholy evaporated, and their place was taken by a powerful sense of the holiness and joy of life. The act of cognition in accordance with the Halakhah, new original halachic insights, spiritual creation all replaced that exaggerated sensitivity and impressionability and that despairing perspective that had at first taken hold of the world of the Musar movement.

    What I personally think happened was that fewer and fewer East European Jews were living at the level of deprevation they were in R' Yisrael's day (mid 19th cent). When life is bleak, people respond to the stick differently than we do. We, living in more comfortable times, really need far more carrot than stick.

    So, to my mind the error isn't in the depiction of what Mussar was; it's in associating the change with coming to America rather than the urbanizing forces of the turn of the previous century.



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