This is Your Jewish Brain on Trauma

By Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Karen Erlichman

David Steiner recently wrote a provocative piece in this forum. As a secular Jew, Steiner was responding to feeling excluded by the use of the word ‘spiritual’ in Jewish spaces.’ Steiner argued that being secular is akin to being queer (LGBTQ). People don’t choose to be queer; it is who they are – and historically have experienced marginalization and persecution simply because of who they are.

In Steiner’s argument, this is also the case with secular Jews. Steiner describes how secular Jews feel marginalized and alienated, simply for being who they are as secular, in a wider world in which ‘spirituality’ is presumed. For Steiner, secular is the new queer.

Notwithstanding the many flaws in this analogy (see Joanna Ware’s response), we think Steiner’s piece touches on important questions about language and trauma, and how that shapes our sense of belonging or alienation. Language, trauma, belonging, and alienation all shape our experience of Jewish communities and cultures we inherit from previous generations, and informs the kind of Jewish community and culture we want to create.

Language matters. The presence of Jewish trauma also matters, and it influences our yearning to heal, and to belong.

The analogy that secular is the new queer must be understood by simultaneously acknowledging the residual effects of Jewish historical trauma, and its lingering impact on how we perceive the present moment.

One thing we know from our work is that Jews (whether queer, secular, both, or neither) carry conscious and unconscious patterns of residual trauma. There is growing research indicating that historical persecution, and multigenerational trauma evokes patterns of behavioral responses that create emotional landmines. These landmines exist and play out within us, and between us as human beings (see, for example, season 2 of “Transparent”). Often these triggers result in infighting, intracommunal hostility, and poor communication that engender feelings of confusion, anger, defensiveness, hurt, and grief.

One pattern of trauma is a heightened sensitivity to feeling excluded, ignored, and unwelcome. An archetypal wound many people carry, as queers and as Jews, is the fear or perception that there is no place for us at the table. LGBTQ people, Jews of color, single parent families, multiracial Jewish families, people living with disabilities, religious progressives, agnostic or atheist Jews, secular Jews, Sephardi/Mizrahi and mixed race Jews, working class Jews, Jews by choice, widows, childless couples…. so many of us do not feel supported, welcomed, or empowered. This is often engendered by direct, lived experience of exclusion, and we don’t discount that.

When we carry trauma with us, we are quick to react with fear that we won’t or don’t belong. We are primed to respond to such fears with anger and criticism instead of open-hearted inquiry. In her book From Enemy to Friend, Rabbi Amy Eilberg writes passionately about this very issue of intracommunal conflict.

If in a wise pause before voicing an angry comment we could remember to listen to the pain and the deep sense of threat fueling our instinctive reaction, we would take far better care of ourselves and do far less damage to our own relationship with others.” (Eilberg, p. 71)

As David Steiner stated, Jewish organizations need to:

start reconsidering your ways and the words you throw out there. They are hurtful and discriminatory, and they don’t serve many of the important missions you hope to achieve. Jewish diversity doesn’t stop at the threshold of faith, and membership is not determined by belief.

This is the language and legacy of Jewish trauma speaking, and we recognize it as such with deep compassion because we too have experienced it. We know what oppression, coercion, control, and victimization look and feel like. We also know that our language, behavior, policies, and practices can unconsciously or unintentionally perpetuate the very patterns and behaviors from which we are trying to heal.

The question is: how do we manage our propensity to focus on the many ways we feel marginalized? Should we presume exclusion within our own community? What is the impact on us – individually and collectively – when we define our sense of self by where we feel like we don’t belong? We think there are many powerful and effective ways to respond emotionally and interpersonally to these important questions. We fervently hope that there are more expansive ways to connect to the world that are not solely, or primarily, defined by our conscious or unconscious legacies of trauma.

The Jewish community is in great need of safe spaces, what Quaker Parker Palmer calls “circles of trust,” in which we can speak honestly with each other about these issues of paramount importance. We need to hear one another with non-defensive openness and generous listening. If we can truly HEAR, and pause and reflect before reacting, we can notice where the trauma triggers are. We can get some support/perspective on those trauma triggers, and then respond with a Kulanu (we are all connected) response rather than an Othering response. We want to suggest that presuming welcome, rather than exclusion, might be a better way to connect with others and cultivate a sense to belonging.

We just ended our annual celebration of liberation from Egypt. Passover is a timely reminder of how we remember and retell stories of Jewish trauma, and celebrate our freedom. In the Haggadah we read last week, the text teaches “In every generation, everyone is obligated to see themselves as though they personally left Egypt.”

Part of our liberation, and our collective move towards Sinai in the celebration of Shavuot, is the effort to reclaim our power of choice, and to commit ourselves to freedom and responsibility for one another. We have many choices available to us in a given moment. We can choose not to forget the suffering and victimization we experienced as slaves in Egypt, while simultaneously doing the important soul work to prepare for revelation, even without certainty about what might happen.

So many of the narratives in Torah remind us to feel compassion for the suffering we endure and to celebrate the ways we experience the possibility of freedom and liberation – in our thinking, in our relationships, and in our emotional responses to the world. May we meet our past and present traumas, our past and present communities, and perhaps especially ourselves and each other, with compassion.

Dr. Caryn Aviv is a sociologist, rabbinic candidate in ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s ordination program, and Associate Director of Judaism Your Way in Denver, Colorado. Dr. Karen Erlichman is a psychotherapist, spiritual director, Jewish feminist theologian, and writer in the Bay Area.