Does Judaism Have a Salve for Moral Injury? – Part I

Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression which produces profound emotional shame. The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma.
Wikipedia Definition for “Moral Injury”

I’ve been reflecting of late on my work, now a few years dormant, with veterans struggling in recovery and veterans caught up in the criminal justice system. My old Guard unit from Pennsylvania, while not sustaining the highest post-deployment suicide rate, has lost so many young men to suicide, and I think this has prompted many of us to stay close and to stay in touch.

Curiously, this line of thinking was prompted by our rabbi’s sermon on Shabbos, talking about whether not Jews, as a group, can forgive or not forgive Rep. Ilan Omar for her antisemitic comments.  He gave us a treatment on the Jewish views of repentance and forgiveness, which in turn caused me to think about it in the context of veterans.

Let’s start where I start on this.

I came home early from our 2008-2009 OIF mobilization due to a custody situation, and finished out a significant chunk of our deployment on Title 10 orders in the rear detachment. Because of that early removal, I could distinctly see the difference between many of my peers prior to and after the mobilization. I could see the bright young soldiers from early in the mobilization with the proverbial thousand yard stare upon their return to Fort Dix.

I thought I had myself in order, too, until I realized I didn’t.  I personally confused my ability to hold it together professionally with winning at the game of life.  I finished college while working full time.  I finished grad school while working full time and balancing life as a single dad.  I married my beautiful wife, Leah, who not only became a mother to Amelia, but gave us the gift of Nezzie.  We struggled, both with my problems and the long-running custody battle.

After a few dark times, especially after a young, former soldier that went to school with my younger cousins, took his own life, I thought about suicide myself, and I needed things needed to change for me.  I had been there for Rich.  As a college student, he smoked weed one weekend prior to our drills as we rapidly approached mobilization.  I fought against the Pennsylvania Adjutant General’s zero tolerance policy to keep him in uniform, and lost.  He dropped out of college.  He met someone, had a kid, and then that fell apart.  I provided a reference for him for a job, and I thought he was coming back to a good place; we talked about trying to get him back in the Guard more than a few times.  And then I get the call that he left his darling little girl behind when he put a shotgun in his mouth.

If I never fully committed to suicidal ideation,  I believe that’s because of being grounded in Judaism. Without knowing why Judaism helped, I found value in myself, and those around me.  I have healthy, positive relationships with others all over the world and this country, and it’s all because a worldview shaped by Judaism.

So does Judaism have a specific salve for moral injury that we can share with the world?

Not just Jews, but our non-Jewish friends.  Not just as a people that continually come through harrowing and traumatic experiences, but as imbued with a collective and ancient wisdom in approach to a relationship to this world.  I believe we do, and that’s why I’m writing this.

Rich’s suicide wasn’t the first.

It started with our friend Jimmy, who took his own life. Eddie, who was deeply affected by the loss of Spc. Chad Edmundson. Blake. It’s not been easy for their brothers in 2/112. I think about Jimmy quite a bit, because we had a weird, unlikely friendship. In our own veterans court program back in our hometown, we lost so many, and even with the numerous continued successes on the part of participant, it’s hard not to feel burdened by those we failed to reach.

I’ve been searching for a way to do it up here. I see so many veteran-run programs, but I’m concerned about their capability when they don’t operate under the guidance of trained professionals. There is such a shortage of mental health providers to begin with, and I think we often assume that the relative authority of a fellow veteran telling you “it’s okay” is what is needed in healing.

I’m not so sure. “You did what you had to do” is a frequent refrain in veterans circles. But veterans know that from the time the lead flies that they “did what they had to do.”  If it has any restorative value in terms of absolution or self-forgiveness, I don’t know that I see it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very therapeutic to air grievances in a “circle of hate and discontent.” A former squad leader and beloved friend lead a stogie circle by the same name during OIF, and I think it helped keep dudes grounded in the midst of the shit. But domestically, the accompanying echo chamber of gallows humor and reinforcement that they are an isolated group (and I have no empirical data to support this) can just as often be a hindrance.

Anecdotally, I like the Veterans Court mentor model a little better. Like an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, the mentor is someone who ostensibly has their shit together at least incrementally better than their charge. I think we do the most good not just by being able to relate, but also by being able to issue some of our strength on loan. Something as simple as being able to give a reference for a job goes a long way. We’re conditioned to submit to authority, and that authority doesn’t have to be further along the tracks, just able to send the elevator back down a floor or two.

Still, moral injury is a tough nut to crack. Spiritual counselors also tend to speak in platitude with the best of intentions. It takes a keen spiritual leader with the requisite cocktail of experiences to truly guide soldiers out of it. The born-again preacher, who hit some drug-induced low at some point, likes to think he can relate to the lows and moral injury of a combat veteran, but it may be surprising how little those relate.

For veterans that do turn to spirituality for solutions, there already usually was religiosity in background.  In fact, it can even be a contributing factor in their moral injury to begin with, how their values were tortured and challenged by deeds overseas.  The preacher who came from a self-induced low is wrong to try and develop a rapport on this basis.  How you went from zero to hero in the eyes of the Lord isn’t where a veteran is spiritually.

Along those lines, while American Jewish military service continues to thrive at levels above our representation in the general population, service of liberal Jewish denominations as rabbinical chaplains declined after Vietnam.  The majority of American Jews in uniform come from Reform or Conservative Judaism, which means the majority of our clergy and laity are detached from our experiences.  Rabbis produced from Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary are more likely than Orthodox peers to have some modicum of pastoral care backgrounds germane to this, but the majority of new rabbinical chaplains are from Orthodox movements.  This leads me to believe that American Jewish service members are sometimes starved of the right combination of relatable help.

It’s not a problem to be addressed in the article, but a few years ago, Jews in Green and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation both explored and found that the vaunted “Yellow Ribbon Programs” have been infiltrated by Dominionist Christians and their agenda.  I was contacted by several Jewish therapists who had been driven from the program, they believed, because they did not match the Dominionist milieu.  Even when we appear to have the resources, they may not be the appropriate resources.

I turn to Judaism because it’s what I know, and because it’s a religion heavy on intellectualized and ponderous morality. Just like the moral complexities of combat, there are no easy answers in Judaism.  I think the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations are on the same page.  We need to recognize that the prosperity Gospel hacks or those that repudiate external mental health science are complete non-starters for helping emotionally and mentally wounded veterans.

On Shabbos, our rabbi mentioned a few of the mechanisms for repentance in Judaism, many codified in Gates of Repentance by Rabbi Yonah of Gerona (not the Reform machzor).  I’ll list a few here:

  • regret or acknowledge the sin
  • forsake the sin
  • weigh the consequences of the sin in the future
  • acting with humility
  • adopt the opposite behavior of the sin
  • understand the scope of the sin
  • confess the sin
  • pray to G-d for atonement
  • making amends for the sin
  • pursuing good deeds
  • remembering the sin for the rest of one’s life
  • refraining from committing the same sin
  • teaching others not to sin

Yonah Gerondi’s list is a little more exhaustive than the Rambam’s list (the one our rabbi used on Shabbos):

  • Verbally confess and ask for forgiveness
  • Express sincere remorse, resolving not to do it again
  • “Right the wrong”
  • Act differently under a similar set of circumstances.

Part of the problem with military-related moral injury is that you may well regret, forsake, act with humility, or understand the scope.  You will remember it for the rest of your life. You may well confess it, pray, pursue good deeds.  It’s nearly impossible, once you become a civilian, to do anything but adopt the opposite behavior or act differently.  It’s a wrong you may never amend.

But if remembering the sin for the rest of your life, which you will, is a sincere and accepted form of repentance, that may be helpful.  If you are a religious person, we believe that all of these forms of repentance are adequate for squaring with G-d.

I think this is where we need to go beyond the moral injury and evaluate some other circumstances compounding it.  One of the great thing about the military is that it instructs young, often marginal people a pathway to feeling a sense of achievement and purpose.  When I say marginal, I don’t mean that as an insult.  The C+ student.  The kid seeking egress from a life of poverty through job training or college money.   Like me, the nerd who wanted to defy being a weakling.  We put them through the crucible, all along telling them, as you do this, you are earning your place among the mighty.

What happens when that is over?  Everything after that is a let-down.  I came off active duty as a parachute infantryman in 1999, luckily able to join Pennsylvania’s only Guard unit on jump status at the time, the Long Range Surveillance Detachment.  I had a giant chip on my shoulder, a sense that the civilians surrounding me were lesser beings.  No one could possibly understand.  I was very lucky in that my father handed me a computer at a young age, a Kaypro 2x.  I learned Z80 assembly, C, and Pascal, because in the age CP/M was yielding to DOS, if I wanted to do something new, I had to write it myself.  My brother and my dad spent hours writing games for the Commodore 64 out of Family Computing Magazine.  Because my father gave me that, and because he had transitioned from broadcasting to computer networking while I was still in middle school, he was positioned to help me land a job once I was out, listless and drifting.  I enrolled in Millersville at night and did the transfer credit shuffle a couple of times as I followed my ex-wife in her Air Force career, but that set me onto my career as a programmer.

But on paper, as a former grunt, I wasn’t really qualified to do much via my military vocation.  With purpose comes success, and it’s easy to couple success to self-worth.  And for a majority of returning service members, it is often a case that they struggle not just perhaps with moral injury or PTSD, but a loss of personal worth.

As an aside, besides reasons of kosher, this is why I don’t do Veterans Day meals at Applebees, veteran salutes at the stadium, etc., unless it’s raising money for a specific veterans issue.  This stuff is just a semblance of “give a shit.”  Try and find a homeless veteran a bed in transitional living one time, and get back to me about what is communicated by an athlete kneeling during an anthem.  Visit a VA waiting room.  The schmaltzy leg-humping rendered during Super Bowl beer advertising is heartwarming, but it doesn’t help veterans mend.

The missing chunk, beyond repentance, may be finding that renewed sense of value for oneself.  I’ll follow that in Part II of this series.


Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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