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Toward Shabbat: Shelah Lekha

On May 11, the Pew report on Jewish Americans in 2020 was released. Given the eruption of violence in Israel and Gaza at that moment, it is no surprise it garnered less attention than it might normally have in a quieter hour. The headline of the report reads, “U.S. Jews are culturally engaged, increasingly diverse, politically polarized and worried about anti-Semitism.” Drilling down deeper in the report, we learn that of all the things essential to Jewish identity, remembering the Holocaust ranked the highest (76%) and living a moral and ethical life (72%) was a close second.

Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of being in conversation with Judith Clark at a conference hosted by HUC-JIR on Moral Injury and Soul Repair. Judy, as many of you know, served 38 years in prison for her role as the getaway driver in the 1981 Brinks robbery in which three people were killed. She was released from prison in 2019. We’ve been in an ongoing conversation for almost 18 years since I started visiting her in prison.

Our conversation entitled “A Living Model of Restoring the Soul” revolved around Judy’s process of taking responsibility for her crime and the irreparable damage it did to the lives of the victims and their families, her own daughter, and herself and the work she did to restore belief in herself as a moral human being, worthy of freedom outside the walls of the prison.

The field of moral injury and soul repair didn’t grow out of prisons and those who committed serious crimes but out of the study of veterans who have an incredibly difficult time returning home from war and suffer from an alarming rate of suicide. Professor Rita Nakasima Brock attributes this to the moral injury of war. Moral injury is defined as “the trauma of moral conscience, when harm cannot be amended, and empathy yields only pain and self-condemnation. Moral injury means the existing core moral foundations or faith of a person or group are unable to justify, make sense of, and integrate traumatic experiences into a reliable personal identity that enables relationships and human flourishing. Like a missing limb, it is not a reversible injury, so survival is a process of learning to live with an experience that cannot be forgotten.” (Brock, 2017).

In the midst of war, soldiers do things that violate their core beliefs and the damage is such that at their very essence they don’t feel worthy as human beings. Living becomes devoid of order and meaning leading to the experience of moral injury coupled with the incredibly hard work of soul repair.

Moral injury doesn’t only occur in those who do unconscionable things in the line of duty or people who committed horrible crimes like Judy, but also when societies and those in power inflict moral injury on groups and nations. As I think about the grief, despair, anger, and fear over these last three weeks between the eruption of violence in Israel/Palestine and the increase of antisemitism in our own country, it feels time to truly reckon with the depth of the pain that lives in our people and the moral injury caused by the Holocaust, so much so that 76% of Jews surveyed deem that the most essential part of their Jewishness.

How can one integrate such a violation of morality, systematic dehumanization, and the eradication of 6 million of our people and the instability of living with it and its source: antisemitism and much more? What about Israelis and Palestinians living in a constant state of war, terror, uncertainty, and fear for a century and more than 50 years of occupation? What does that do to the soul of a people, peoples?

The confluence of all these issues in the midst of a global pandemic, a destabilizing assault on our our democratic institutions and the questions of its lasting impact, the reckoning on race in this country (or lack thereof) sometimes feels like too much to bear (and this is coming from a person with all the privileges in the world) even as a person of faith. Is there hope of finding our way through?

But here’s what inspires me amid all the potentially destabilizing noise and moral injury happening in the world around us. On the one hand there are the Judys of the world. I know she is not the only one, but over the 18 years I’ve known her I’ve personally witnessed her own ongoing process of soul repair and teshuvah (repentance). It gives me hope. On the other there are the members of the Parents Circle Families Forum of 600 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families choosing a path of soul repair and reconciliation. It gives me faith and it gives me hope. And finally there is that statistic about what is essential to us Jews in our time. It’s not only the remembrance of the greatest trauma of our people’s history that has been ingrained in our souls, but that it is nearly equal to our unceasing desire to live a moral and ethical life. At our essence, we are not only a people who remember, but a people who aspire. That, too, we should never forget.