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

I ended Part I talking about the low personal worth many veterans struggling with moral injury suffer.  Just as you are often told you go from “zero to hero” when you enlist or commission, you go from “hero to zero” in a manner I would equate with driving a car into a concrete wall when you depart the service.  This is hard for every returning veteran, not just ones suffering from the mental and physical wounds of war, but it is certainly that much worse for those who are struggling.

We didn’t cover deeply what moral injury is in the previous part, nor its overlap with the rampant overdiagnosis of PTSD in the service.

There are many emotional and behavioral symptoms in common with PTSD, but there doesn’t always have to be life-threatening trauma associated with moral injury, and there isn’t necessarily moral conflict involved in PTSD.

Moral injury, for soldiers, can be broken down into two types:  prepretation-based, and betrayal based.

Perpetration-based moral injury may surfacer from: accidental or deliberate killing/wounding of noncombatants, torture or sadistic killing, indiscriminate aggressive behavior, mutilation/dehumanization of corpses, sexual assault, failure to prevent death or injury of a comrade.

Betrayal-based moral injury could be capricious leadership, or violation of moral or ethical conduct that leads to big consequences without any justice.

I think of an instance a few years ago where my old platoon sergeant, at that point Command Sergeant Major of the same battalion, and the battalion commander encouraged the sniper platoon to up their ante in Iraq.  It was the subject of a lot of reporting, as only one of the soldiers involved in the inevitable fallout was convicted and imprisoned.  Check out this clip from Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage by Neta Crawford:Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 7.24.05 AM

Does this not sound like the kind of thing that could produce moral injury and a sense of betrayal by command?  But does it also not sound like the kind of thing that could cause moral injury among members of the sniper section itself?  This is not an indictment of CSM (Ret.) Knight, for what it’s worth.  I could hear him saying he needed more kills, but as someone partially shaped by his leadership, I know he would never condone murder.  And yet, if the perception was “get more bodies,” in war, that can be a liability if understood incorrectly, or if the pressure was misapplied.

In the end, service members are individually on the hook for moral failures in combat situations, no matter what command says.  And whatever the circumstances, there is a good bit about military operations that unfortunately, run counter to common morality.  So how do we reconcile with its aftermath?

Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

A Reform rabbi friend may chuckle that I’m quoting this.  I gave him a hard time for an article in the news where he holds pulpit and joked that “a Reform rabbi quotes Tarfon or Hillel, in other news, water is wet.”

It’s true, while I place great value on this quote from Hillel, the social justice context in which it is usually referenced ends up being fairly superficial.  Here, there are additional dimensions that I think are helpful.  If I could remember where I read the specific interpretation I’m about to use, I would cite it, but unfortunately, I cannot.

In “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” we go between I (אני) and me/mine (לי).  This is two selves.  Our core being, “I”, created in the Divine image, an almost hidden self, our true self.  The “me”, especially in the construction of the sentence, is who we are in relation to other people.

All of us, some more than others, especially in the case of Parris Island Marines or Fort Benning infantry soldiers, have been to some degree deconstructed and rebuilt during our basic training experiences.  It’s a process that continues well after, even in units.  Note the fellow that forces his voice deeper to evince “command authority.”  The guy that japes about wanton destruction overseas.  As a service member, there will be numerous times where what you project is different from what’s inside.

But that deconstruction is an important component of making combat soldiers more lethal.  After World War II, BG S. L. A. Marshall (often accused of being somewhat of a fabulist in spite of his exquisite history work), in Men Against Fire claimed that a majority of soldiers, in spite of being engaged with the enemy, never fired directly at the enemy.  This controversial theory was buttressed by the much more credible work by LTC Dave Grossman in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  People from our society have an embedded resistance to killing another human.  So we switched from bullseye targets to silhouette targets.  We drill harder on actually how to fight and increase authenticity in force-on-force training.  We create group responsibility for death in combat across a unit.

I haven’t done the research myself, and I can only speak as a 20+ year infantry veteran in active duty and the National Guard.  I switched to logistics a few years ago as I age and slow down.  I can still attest to how counterintuitive, at least for me, taking a human life is.

From a Jewish perspective, many of us believe that the Divine imbues us with a spark as part of being created in the image.  That spark constitutes, for all of us, the “I” in Hillel’s questions.  If I am not true to who I am, who will be there for me?  Being true to yourself after moral injury must mean some form of reconciliation with that innate soul.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in my opinion one of Judaism’s most profound theologians, marries this same concept back to בצלם אלקים, “in the image of G-d.”  You, we, all of us are the evidence of the Divine on earth.  Not stained glass windows in a church or synagogue, not holy relics, not the cross, not any symbol—you.  All moral and ethical truth are derived from that absolute value of human life.

Rabbi Art Green, in the amazing work, Seek My Face, says, “The inner drive to imitate the ever-giving source of life calls forth in us an unceasing flow of love, generosity of spirit, and full acceptance, both of ourselves and of all God’s creatures.”

I wonder sometimes if portents of eternal damnation, which don’t have much sourcing in Jewish literature for the common man, can get in the way here.  As Jews, our primary view on sin is that it creates a distance between us and the Divine, because we are Divine creatures created for the Divine work of Creation.  The weight of transgression takes us away from that little piece of the Divine within us.  We don’t just create distance between ourselves and Heaven, but that piece of immutable goodness within us.

This is something we all struggle with, not just someone suffering from moral injury.  But the walk back is still the same, even if the symptoms are far more acute.

Maimonides, our Rambam, points Jews (and this works for non-Jews) to שביל הזהב, the “golden mean.”  If even your Orthodox friends ever dispute the influence of Hellenism on all walks of Jewish life, consider the obvious influence of Aristotle on Rambam.  Generally, I torture the Jewish take on the “golden mean” with regards to politics, but the guidance from Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim, his Mishneh Torah, and his commentary on Pirkei Avot contain guidance that may be helpful, since Rambam was actually writing about health.

What is the “golden mean?”

Rambam takes Aristotle’s basic ethical teaching and gives it a Mosaic spin – that we should take the middle path between two extremes while modeling ourselves after the humility of Moshe Rabbeinu.  For a person to find themselves in a proper place, “between two extremes, both of which are unfavorable; one is excess and the other restriction.”  “Restraint,” Rambam tells us, “is the middle path between indulgence and the absence of desire…between being stingy and extravagance.”  (my translations, for what it is worth).  When you attune your behavior now to that golden mean, you’re back on the right path.

We can take his example of miserly people – he advises them to “spend freely” until they’ve truncated the miserly will, and look to that.  If you feel like you have broken, especially in the case of combat veterans, your relationship to the value of human life, tip that scale, take on actions that clearly preserve and advance the interest of human life.

It’s important to underscore how different Judaism can be from mainline Protestant Christianity on this matter.  We have many values in common, but this is where “Judeo-Christian values” do not apply.  While I believe there is a component of both self-forgiveness and Divine forgiveness in healing, “by grace alone” feels like it may not take people across the finish line.  I think few Christian theologians predicate the process of healing solely on the merits of divine grace through the sacrifice of a savior.  Judaism, however, does place emphasis on t’shuvah, return or repentance, through adherence to Torah, and those acts, as we’ll explore via Maimonides, do help achieve a personal equilibrium.

Judaism also does not tell you that one can come back from any transgression, but there is always value in atonement.  In our rabbi’s sermon two weeks ago on Parsha Tzav, he spoke about the Haftarah and what its implications are for the sacrificial system.  G-d gave us a mechanic, but we need to divorce the intent of the mechanic from the actual sacrificial system.  G-d gave us sacrifice as a mechanic to walk back that what we did wrong.  There was a physical expiation of sin with the act of sacrifice.

In the High Holiday haftarah from Isaiah (28), the prophet asks rhetorically on behalf of G-d, “Is this the fast I seek?”:

No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock the fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

The message is clear.  If you are a person of faith, and even if you are not, atonement is about reversing the negative act with a positive one, something that affirms Creator, Creation, and the Created.

If you have a moral injury, in most cases, it is because you did something that came into conflict with your value constructs.  Both Rambam and the Divine, in Judaism, make clear that, if you feel like this is now who you are, you can reacquaint yourself with the Golden Mean by offsetting the profane with something of moral value.

Rambam, above all, like Judaism itself, affirms that as a being with free will, with your moral injury, you did not lose the ability to have meaning in your life.  You are not irretrievably broken.  Rambam explicitly lays it out in Shemoneh Perakim, that your soul exists in equilibrium:

The ancients maintained that the soul, like the body, is subject to good health and illness.  The soul’s healthful state is due to its condition and that of its faculties, by which it constantly does what is right and performs what is proper, while the illness of the soul is occasioned by its condition and that of its faculties, which results in its constantly doing wrong and performing actions that are improper.

Now combine that with the corrective action Rambam recommends, also in Shemoneh Perakim:

Good deeds are equilibrium, maintaining the mean between equally bad extremes, the too much and the too little.

So what is being said here is that you may not even need to balance the cause of your moral injury with an equivalent offset, but rather, just to get back to that equilibrium.  This is the ultimate goal.  Not absolution, not forgiveness, but rather, achieving equilibrium.

So, does Judaism contain a salve for moral injury?

The unequivocal conceptual answer is yes, but the reality is far more complicated than that.  In Israel, it is more common to have Jewish figures concerned with the mental health of military personnel, by nature of living in a Jewish society.  It has been my experience, even with our collection of Jewish chaplains, that the American veteran does not have access to a Jewish approach to a spiritual recovery from moral injury.  Our Jewish clergy is often not trained in it, and even the most erudite, Jewish LCSW is usually not imbued with in-depth knowledge of our traditions.

The other reality is that veterans, especially, are often on their own to find their way back, no matter how many programs are out there.  You may not even find the kind of personal guidance that you desperately need.

I cannot be clear enough, I am not a trained professional in this field.  I have worked for years with my fellow veterans in Veterans Court programs and in addiction recovery, and all I can personally attest to is that rebuilding your own internal value, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” has always fit.  Reach out to us, on this blog, if you need, and we’ll help you as best we can find your value.  No one understands, as we know, like our fellow vets.  And you can strike it out, finding your way back to the path and the light, absent any resources, if you must.  But do find help, if you can.

There is something deeply profound I realized some time ago about moral injury:  if it hurt you, it means your ability to perceive right and wrong is not broken.  If you can put a finger on the day things went south, and that gives you options, more options than more elusive problems.

One immediate thing you can do is find a way to pay it forward.  Find a younger veteran or service member, and mentor them to zig where you may have zagged.

My guidance usually always is to “connect with your Local Orthodox Rabbi (LOR)” with questions, but in this case, check with your mental health provider/advocate.  If you don’t have one, the VA can help you find one.  If the VA can’t we will.


Litz, Brett T., Nathan Stein, Eileen Delaney, Leslie Lebowitz, William P. Nash, Caroline Silva, and Shira Maguen. “Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy.” Clinical psychology review 29, no. 8 (2009): 695-706.

Harris, J. I., Park, C. L., Currier, J. M., Usset, T. J., & Voecks, C. D. (2015). Moral injury and psycho-spiritual development: Considering the developmental context. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 2(4), 256-266.

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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