Trauma. The word conjures images of disaster, mayhem, violence. However, a person can be scarred by the contents of a letter, by words whispered in the dark, by a glance. It is not the objective degree of physical injury or property damage that is traumatic—football linemen spend afternoons being pounded by 250-pound opponents and leave the game emotionally unfazed. This is because traumas are not simply bad events—they are what bad events mean

According to Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, a psychologist at University of Massachusetts, trauma occurs when our basic beliefs about the world are damaged. Unconsciously, we trust that:

  1. The world is just, 
  2. The world is well ordered (not chaotic), and 
  3. The self is good (i.e., competent, moral and lovable). 

Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, understood that moving forward in life depended on the coherence supplied by these basic beliefs. He said that: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Thus, there is a big difference between sadness and trauma. Sadness can make sense, as when a loved one passes on after a full life; we understand that death is a natural part of life, and a life well-lived is a success. But a life cut short, such as John F. Kennedy’s or Martin Luther King’s, not only deprives them, and us, of their full potential, but it also undermines faith in a world that operates in a sensible and benign manner. They are not simply bad events; they are events that are (or feel) senseless. 

Imagine standing on a three-legged stool where each of the basic beliefs represents a leg. Traumas occur when one or more of these legs are broken; our system of psychological support collapses. Recovery depends on the degree to which meaning, the legs upon which we stand, can be restored. How is meaning regained? Can new meanings be swapped in, like replacing defective memory on a sluggish computer, or are there immutable meanings that require reaffirmation? 

These questions, we believe, are at the heart of Judaism. Like other major religions, Judaism provides a set of beliefs upon which people can organize their lives. Yet Judaism also recognizes that finding meaning is an ongoing struggle, for each person and for each community. In some ways, Judaism is like math; it provides the maxims and principles from which new meanings can be found and in which lost meanings can be recovered. It is our job to apply these principles to the particular problems we face. In that way Judaism allows us to create and repair our worlds, but within a communal set of core principles. 

Among the cardinal assumptions of Judaism is that the world makes sense; it is ordered and lawful. Indeed, one of the first acts of creation was “separating the light from the dark.” What a weird, enticing image—what are light and dark when they are not separated? In that separation was created “the first day”— in other words, time. Thus, what was first created were not only things (light and dark, day and night) but a regularity, and an order. Without that initial ordering, nothing else could follow. We begin not only with “the beginning” but with “a beginning” – a structure in which we learn where we are, when we are, who we are. 

When, following a loss in the family, we recite the Kaddish prayer, it is our declaration of faith that the world is benignly ordered. We do not decree that the pain of loss will diminish or that bad events will not recur. Rather, like Havel, we declare that the world is sound enough to merit moving forward – to hope. 

How do people get from trauma to hope? There are some interesting convergences between modern psychology and Jewish ritual regarding this question. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, recognized that often the worst wounds that survivors carried were not of injury or loss in themselves, but instead the destruction of fundamental beliefs. How could a loving God or a decent humanity permit such horrors as he endured to happen? From observing patients whose faith in an orderly, meaningful universe had collapsed, Frankl developed a therapy based on the restoration of meaning, which he called “Logotherapy.”

Frankl recognized that the restoration of basic beliefs, and the implicit faith in life that they support, cannot be simply willed or reasoned into being. Similarly, the pain of trauma cannot be healed by denying or suppressing the thoughts and feelings stemming from it. Rather, psychic repair requires confronting these wounds through the power of emotional disclosure. This was one of Sigmund Freud’s great insights. He found that patients suffering from “hysterical paralyses” and from debilitating fears were immediately helped by simply putting into words thoughts and events that were shameful, taboo, or terrifying.

Modern research confirms the power of Freud’s “talking cure.” It shows that when people disclose their thoughts and feelings about past negative events, they are less likely to become physically ill. In a series of landmark studies, psychologist James Pennebaker had people write either about their most traumatic experience, or about a neutral experience. Those who disclosed traumas were much less likely to seek medical treatment in the following six months. In another experiment Pennebaker showed that disclosure strengthens the immune system, as evidenced by a higher T-cell count. Importantly, disclosure does not typically make people happier; instead it boosts their inner resources—self-esteem, meaning and perspective, purpose—which in turn helps them to better manage adversity. 

Of course, we often seek out other people when we need to disclose. They can provide us empathy, compassion, and acceptance. But being a good supporter is not easy, even with thousands of years of precedent to draw upon. In a story told in the classic rabbinic text Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s son dies, and his students come to comfort him. When his student Rabbi Eliezer tells him that he should agree to be comforted, just as Adam was comforted after his son died, Rabban Yohanan replies, “Is it not enough that I grieve over my own? Do you have to remind me of Adam’s grief?” Three other rabbis offer similar consolations citing the deaths of the sons of Job, Aaron and David. Rabban Yohanan responds negatively to them all.

Finally, a fifth student, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh, enters the house of mourning, but he approaches Rabban Yohanan differently. He tells a parable: “To whom may you be likened? To a man with whom the king deposited an object. Each and every day the man would weep and cry out, saying, ‘Woe is me! When shall I be safely relieved of this trust?’ You too, rabbi, had a son: he studied the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings…Mishnah, Halakhah, and Midrash and departed from this world without sin. May you be comforted because you have returned unimpaired what was given you in trust.” Rabban Yohanan said to him, “Rabbi Eleazar, my child, you have comforted me the way people should give comfort!”

Rabbi Eleazar succeeds where the others fail because he emphasizes the relational aspect of the interaction. The other disciples do not assuage Rabban Yohanan’s pain. Instead, they tell Rabban Yohanan that he may have a bad situation, but that his situation could have been worse (like those of Job, Adam and David). In contrast, Rabbi Eleazar acknowledges Rabban Yohanan’s suffering; he doesn’t diminish his emotional experience. Spiritually assessing the rabbi’s condition as one of brokenness, Rabbi Eleazar realizes that Rabbi Yohanan was probably bereft, trying to comprehend how this tragedy could have happened. He offers his teacher hope by suggesting that “all is not destroyed” and reasons with him in a way that he can relate to and accept: His son has been returned to God after having dedicated himself wholeheartedly to understanding the Torah and the other sacred texts, and he has been a successful father because he effectively conveyed his Torah values. Positing that his son was a gift from God and was rightfully returned, Rabban Yohanan could find purpose in his son’s shortened life, which could then mitigate his pain and provide a truly meaningful, comforting perspective.

This story provides wisdom about how to communicate to those in pain, and how not to do so. Rabban Yohanan’s first four students spoke pedantically, imposing their meanings on his painful experience, stating that he “should be comforted.” But Rabbi Eleazar, the fifth student, helped Rabban Yohanan make emotional sense of the death rather than push him to accept it superficially. Basing his response on their prior relationship, Rabbi Eleazar led with a personal and affective approach, not an intellectual one. By treating his teacher as a person first, he validated Rabban Yohanan’s feelings. 

Jews have a long history of trauma, and Judaism’s traditional responses and rituals can be surprisingly modern. Sitting shiva – mourning with a community – is one of the ways we confront pain and then move forward. As difficult as that may be, the ritual provides us with a supportive, caring community as we grapple with the pain of loss. It provides a space and time in which mourners are allowed to disclose. Importantly, the custom discourages visitors from initiating conversation, lest they impose their own interpretations or directions on a process that belongs to the mourners.

The conventions of the shiva bear a strong resemblance to modern psychological guidance. Some of Kent Harber’s research confirms the wisdom of this custom; when people receive directive support (e.g., advice, instruction) they become more depressed and demoralized, but when they receive nondirective support (compassionate listening, providing help as requested) their coping is advanced. Instead, by respectfully following the direction of the mourner’s thoughts and feelings, the visitor may provide true solace.

Jewish tradition is about confronting rather than denying negative events, not to be morbid, but as a way to reconcile with one’s past in order to move forward. We see such confrontation with discomfort in various Jewish rituals, including reciting the Kaddish and Yizkor memorial prayers in memory of deceased loved ones, fasting and mourning on Tisha B’Av, and in the admission of our failings throughout Yom Kippur. Modern Israel understands that moving forward requires acknowledging difficult past events. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) falls one week before the celebration of Independence Day, and Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) immediately precedes Independence Day. Contemporary Israel pauses to acknowledge with respect the most traumatic communal point in Jewish history, and is shortly after able to be joyful about the establishment of the State of Israel, while also being mindful of the sacrifices necessary to ensure its safety.

Has our shared communal Jewish experience of trauma helped us grow as a people? Therapists suggest that going through a difficult event together can be beneficial for healing. Our group identity as Jews helps us cope with contemporary and historical collective trauma. Through rituals like the shiva and its conventions on how to comfort the bereaved, we are tightly linked together. This helps us to commiserate with each other, to put events in context, and to know that others are dealing with the same catastrophe at the same time. We, as Jews, have a collective memory, which is a common theme throughout our prayers. Remembering tragedies as a community helps us create deeper connections and bonding. 

Final Thoughts

When Moses first descended Mount Sinai, seeing the Golden Calf must have been traumatic. The people whom he struggled to transform into a People had so utterly regressed and transgressed. Their collective lack of faith was, for him, a personal crisis of faith. Their outrage led to his rage, which led to his dashing of the Ten Commandments on the ground—the ultimate image of basic beliefs shattered. 

But for the Israelites to regain their path, meaning had to be restored. Mount Sinai had to be scaled again, and a painful disputatious reckoning with the Creator had to be had. A new set of tablets was made. And what is so wonderful is that etched on the new tablets were the original Commandments. They were not edited to include more restrictive or more accommodating laws. And the same is true for those of us wrestling with our own crises of beliefs—that the way back is not satisfied by any meaning, but the meaning that best respects the ways of the self and of the world. The drama at Sinai seems to suggest that the restoration of a people and the restoration of a person follow the same challenging path; toward meanings that not only reintegrate but that also require integrity.   

This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Minds and Midrash is a collaborative teaching and learning project developed at United Synagogue of Hoboken (USH), with support from Sinai and Synapses. Each month, several USH members who are behavioral scientists, mental health professionals, and Judaica scholars discuss a human concern (e.g., Justice, Consciousness, Courage, Judgment, Trauma), exploring it from the perspective of our various disciplines. This post is based on a Minds and Midrash program presented by Kent Harber (experimental social psychologist), Naomi Kalish (rabbi), and Tara Tripodi (clinical social worker).