Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Americanization of Mussar: Abraham Twerski's Twelve Steps

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Americanization of Mussar: Abraham Twerski's Twelve Steps

Article excerpt

IN 1946 REFORM RABBI JOSHUA LOTH LIEBMAN PUBLISHED Peace of Mind, an inspirational best-seller that declared psychology to be as important as religion to Americans' spiritual growth. Traditionalist intellectuals, led by the neo-orthodox thinker Will Herberg, were appalled at the incursion of psychotherapeutics into the religious sanctum. They denounced Liebman's provocative thesis, trumpeting their certainty that traditional religion and psychotherapy did not mix. [1] Their contention, however, met a unique challenge in the 1950s when a young Hasidic rabbi from Milwaukee began working his way through medical school in order to become a psychiatrist.

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 Je wish tradition. [3]


Abraham Twerski was born October 6, 1930, one of five sons of Jacob Israel Twerski and Leah Halberstam, both of whom came from distinguished Hasidic families. Immigrating to the U.S. from Russia in 1927, the Twerskis settled in Milwaukee. Jacob served as rabbi of a local congregation until 1939, when he established his own congregation, Beth Yehudah, in his home. All five of the Twerski sons were ordained. The eldest, Shlomo and Motel, worked respectively as a scholar in Denver and an accountant in Brooklyn. The youngest are twins, Aaron, an authority on product liability law who teaches at Brooklyn Law School, and Michel, who succeeded Jacob on his death in l973. [4]

Abraham was supposed to succeed his father and, as a boy, he was entranced by the procession of people who came to the rebbe for advice and consolation. He, too, wanted this kind of relationship with people, but he recognized that in America clergymen were ceasing to be the sole dispensers of spiritual comfort. Dreading the prospect of being an overseer of ceremonial functions with little pastoral engagement, the younger Twerski resolved upon a different path. "If I had to become a psychiatrist to do what I had to do as a rabbi," he recalled, "then that's what I was going to do." [5]

In 1959, after assisting his father for seven years and graduating from Marquette University Medical School, he left the pulpit to enter the University of Pittsburgh Western Psychiatric Institute, where he completed his psychiatric training in 1963. In 1972 Twerski founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in western Pennsylvania, a leading center for the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. When his father died the following year, Michel took the family pulpit while Abraham expanded his psychiatric ministry. He began writing psycho-spiritual self-help books in 1978 and ultimately produced over twenty books in this genre, some for a general audience and some specifically for Jews. A few of Twerski's books have sold over 100,000 copies; in Orthodox bookstores his writings often occupy an exclusive section. [6]

America versus Mussar

From the beginning of his career Twerski had to reckon with powerful trends in American society. He came of age during the time of wonder drugs like the anti-psychotic, Thorazine and the tranquilizer, Librium. …

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