Wounding of a soul

Moral injury and soul repair: A Jewish perspective

We suffer from moral injury when our lived experiences—as perpetrators, victims, witnesses, or failed upstanders—breach our moral codes, leaving us disconnected from our core values and with the sense that our moral integrity has been compromised or shattered. 

As we emerge from the economic, health, and mental health crises produced by the pandemic, we are grappling with the impact of years of direct assaults on our values: the fracturing of our democracy, a deepening awareness of systemic racism and sexism, and a clear rise in antisemitic and xenophobic expressions and incidents. 

Many Jews are exhibiting the signs and symptoms of moral injury:

anger, hopelessness, depression, guilt, shame, and a profound sense of betrayal by our leaders, our institutions, and ourselves.

Moral injury, the wounding of a soul, gives us language to name something we have encountered in our work, and it can provide all of us with language for understanding a particular type of pain Americans from all walks of life and regions are experiencing today.

As rabbis, pastoral caregivers, trained mental health professionals, and instructors and supervisors to future rabbis and cantors, we have found the work we have done with a think tank on moral injury, based at the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, invaluable for understanding our current historical moment. 

“Moral injury is the trauma of moral conscience, when harm cannot be amended, and empathy yields only pain and self-condemnation. Moral emotions, such as guilt, shame, remorse, and outrage at others, result in broken trust, poor health, social isolation, and, in extreme cases, suicide or violence. 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.” (Rita Nakashima Brock, 2017).

At this unexpected juncture in our moral lives, we can learn from the healing modalities that have proven successful with those military veterans who suffer from moral injury, the first population in which it was identified. 

“Soul repair is the process of restoring belief in oneself as a responsible moral agent, worthy of being in relationship with others. Soul repair is most often achieved through a multi-disciplinary approach focused on helping individuals to once again experience life as reliable and meaningful, by validating their experiences and integrating them into a newly-constituted sense of themselves in the world, built on justice, trust, and hope.” (Geringer and Wiener, 2021)

Community leaders and religious leaders, mental health and health care professionals, educators and countless other professionals can provide multi-disciplinary support and guidance as they accompany others engaging in soul repair. Therefore, learning more about this field and preparing for work with Jews suffering now, before we move into the post-COVID quarantine world is essential. 

On June 2-3, clergy, mental health, and other helping professionals will convene for a ground-breaking conference, Moral Injury and Soul Repair: A Jewish Perspective, presented by The Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in partnership with a broad array of chaplaincy, clergy, psychotherapy, and other organizations. Rita Nakashima Brock will introduce moral injury and soul repair; a panel of rabbis will share cases from their work, illustrating the ways in which Jews have been experiencing moral injury; Rabbi Jonathan Crane, PhD, will speak about  how understanding the nexus of ethics, Jewish ethics and moral injury can be soil in which healing can begin for Jews; Jewish spiritual and mental health professionals will offer workshops based on Jewish teachings and practices that dove-tail with the expanding literature on modalities that foster soul repair.   

Now is the time to gain an understanding of moral injury and the means to provide healing and hope.  

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, DMin and Rabbi Kim S. Geringer, CSW teach pastoral care and counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, NY. Rabbi Wiener directs the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR and is the co-author of Maps and Meaning: Levitical Models of Care. Their article “Insights into Moral Injury and Soul Repair from Classical Jewish Text,” in Pastoral Psychology, offers ways to understand and respond to moral injury through Jewish teachings. They are the conference co-chairs for “Moral Injury and Soul Repair: A Jewish Perspective.”