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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Mishpatim- Moral Injury

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon here or read below.


Rabbinic training is designed to prepare you for life, but there are some bits of the study of rabbinic texts in particular that can seem a little far removed from reality. Like discussions about how many cheek fulls of liquid constitute a meal? What animals can function as the wall of a sukkah? 

If you can’t carry food between dwellings on Shabbat, can you get around it by putting a meal together on one plate from two houses to make them into one dwelling? Most of the time it feels slightly eccentric and obscure, you can understand why our progressive ancestors found some of our religious texts to be irrelevant and time consuming distractions from the real work of Judaism.

But Talmudic logic has had a renaissance recently, and it’s made me wonder if this is the moment the rabbis were training us for... How much food do you need to have with your drink for it to constitute a meal? Can you gather people indoors for a work meeting, or does it need to be for a Christmas party? And what about a birthday- does the presence of a cake or invite turn a work meeting into a party, and does it matter if it all happened inside a home that is also a place of work? 

Sometimes it feels like our public discourse has become weirdly Talmudic, where column inches and statements in the media are dedicated to discussions of categories and whether something was or wasn’t included in a particular category or exemption. Hours of arguing about details, posting proofs and refutations, and meanwhile the public and in particular many of those who have had to make extreme sacrifices and endure quite exceptional circumstances especially during the early days of the pandemic- sacrifices many here at FRS have made- express feeling angrier, sadder, more exasperated, and like the reality of their experience is totally disconnected from the conversation at hand.

Laws, rules, guidance, they’re all there to protect us, that’s the basic principle of our parliamentary democracy. We all collectively consent to a mutual agreement whereby we hand some of our agency over to those in leadership to exercise judgement on our behalf. It’s covenantal. We agree to participate in a system based on the idea that it is in the interest of the common good. 

It’s also topical, Jewishly topical, because we’re in the middle of a conversation in Torah about these social covenants, the Mishpatim that establish proper social behaviour. The word Mishpatim has the root s-p-t like shofet, judgements. 
They imply values, and the Mishpatim that are in this week’s portion represent a very early legal code- one that sets out rules in society and indicates the value judgements that underpin those rules.

The relationship between central moral values and rules is integral to how our society, any society, operates. It’s not just technical, their authority comes from a sense of moral correctness, an agreement between members of society that these rules are the right ones to uphold our shared belief system. It’s a much more delicate system than perhaps we realise, or rather we only realise when it is violated not just on an individual level but on a systemic one. 

In Torah the Mishpatim establish norms and expectations between us and God, they articulate reasonable expectations and in doing so develops a sense of moral order.  In society at large, there is a similar process at play between the secular/earthly authorities and us as citizens. 

For a long time, people have been asking what happens when that sense of moral order is breached. What happens when something happens and there is what the psychiatrist and academic Jonathan Shay describes as ‘a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes situation’. He named the harm that results ‘moral injury’.

He developed his ideas when looking at what happened to soldiers in war, who were often asked to breach their own personal ethical codes, sometimes later doubting the value of their actions but carrying the moral injury that resulted from this breach. And it’s not just soldiers, since people began to explore and understand the notion of moral injury, it has been used to describe the experiences of healthcare workers who are unable to meet their own high standards of care because of resource scarcity, or burnout.

And increasingly, religious and secular leaders are asking where moral injury is showing up in our society at large. A recent leader in the BMJ highlighted a number of potential sources of moral injury during the pandemic, particularly  Dominic Cumming’s behaviour and the events around the murder of George Floyd. In her article the ethicist Suzanne Shale writes:

Situations in which it is not possible to fulfill cherished moral commitments are the first source of moral injury. Cummings was widely perceived to have violated lockdown by driving from London to Durham when infected and taking his family on an excursion during his recuperation. This news was met by an outpouring of grief and anger. It came from people not allowed to be with parents, children and partners when they died; unable to attend or invite people to funerals; not permitted to be present at births; unable to greet newborns, or to visit to support new mothers. It was not just those directly affected who expressed outrage, but many who empathised with them and who had themselves followed the rules. 

Preventing the spread of coronavirus needed millions of people to treat the good of strangers as more important than their own preferences, and in some cases even more important than obligations of love and care they felt they owed to those close to them. People who made this sacrifice can rightly claim it as a profoundly moral act, but it is not without cost. Being prevented from doing what we normally believe to be right, when deeply felt needs and obligations are calling us to do so, is morally injurious. For citizens, being prevented from meeting fundamental moral commitments associated with birth, love and death is akin to the moral injury experienced by care workers when they are unable to provide the care they believe they should. For a man who asked others to set their own moral commitments aside, to then insist he was morally justified in not making the same sacrifice, adds insult to injury.” 

Shale’s BMJ piece was written in 2020, but its insight into the moral injury that people experienced from the Barnard Castle scenario might, I suspect, have some ongoing resonance as news continues to break about other incidents during that period.

The reason that I think it's so important to be able to notice that this isn’t about what you think of the people involved or really even about party politics but rather something much more foundational. It's because moral injury has some significant potential consequences- and we as a religious community have an important role to play in it’s treatment, something known as soul repair. 

When we experience moral harm, it can have a pretty terrible impact on us, ranging from depression and despair all the way to moral collapse. It can lead to us giving up on our moral foundations entirely, and making choices to spite those who have harmed us. This shows up in particular in the rates of crime amongst ex-servicemen, and it Shale also suggests it can be seen in attitudes to Covid regulations earlier in the pandemic, or by rioting in response to perceived injustice. If you’re interested in building cohesive societies or communities that care for each other, moral injury is a real concern. 

Last year I had the opportunity to learn at a conference about moral injury and soul repair hosted by the Hebrew Union College. Rabbis Nancy Weiner and Kim Geringer led some incredibly insightful learning about the Jewish toolbox for responding to moral injury, explaining how we can talk about and care for moral wounds, and create an environment that allows for their healing- even when the wider social context might still present sources of continued harm. 

They teach that:

“The possibility of seeing the world and its rhythms entirely disrupted and destroyed and the accompanying feelings of pain, sadness, and confusion as to how to proceed are age-old problems for individuals and communities. However, the possibility of lamenting the loss and realising that all of one’s values and all of one’s commitments need not be lost along with the very real loss that one has suffered is equally if not more powerful. It is the cornerstone of resilience and continued meaning. “

David Blumenthal reminds us that moral injury is also a sign of moral health, that it is the presence of a moral system within us that makes us also vulnerable to harm. He suggests that acting from these moral foundations as we notice their centrality in our experience of the world can restore our confidence in their veracity.

And when we bring these conversations into our shul community it is because, as Rita Nakashima Block explains, “every significant work on moral injury insists that communities are crucial to recovery”.

When people say they saw something or experienced something and it ‘restored their faith in humanity’, it’s not just an overused saying. It’s an insight into the power of being part of a community that advances a values based narrative that nurtures and restores a person’s sense of the integrity of their moral world.  When hurt comes from feeling unable to meet our moral commitments to each other, soul repair involves regaining that agency and understanding that not being able to do what we value was not about our own moral failings but rather an impossible environment.

I don’t want to remove the responsibility that is on those who cause moral harm, particularly those who hold power in society, or over those they harm in other settings like religious institutions or in other parts of public life. They have a serious role to play in countering moral injury on a societal level by articulating their understanding of the harm caused, by creating space for people to share their feelings, by respecting and upholding the rights of those who are hurt to feel that pain, and by taking concrete steps to make amends.

But at the same time, we can do a lot for ourselves and for each other by naming and opening up a discourse about moral injury- and therefore trying to protect ourselves from falling into the potential spiral that moral injury can lead people down. Particularly, as we continue this process of emerging, and it brings with it the time and space to reckon with and process what we have been through as a society, and where we as individuals may still be grappling with the moral injury that the experience has awakened. We can work to ensure that within the microcosm of FRS and in the work we do beyond our shul we allow ourselves and others to experience a higher level of care and mutual responsibility. And we can nurture our moral agency. 

Not all breaches of our moral code are as physical and easy to pinpoint as the smashing of the tablets of law that will soon be broken by Moses, but moral injury does give us a language to explore some of the feelings people around us are carrying, and to understand the hurt it can cause. 

In the case of those tablets:

“Rabbi Judah bar Lakish taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness- one for the whole set of tablets, the Torah, and one for the broken pieces. The ark in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting, but the one containing the broken pieces would come and go with the people. From this we infer that the broken tablets were even more treasured by the people. They took them with them wherever they traveled, just as all of us take the broken parts of ourselves wherever we go. And then – one day– both sets were brought to the Land of Israel and placed together in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.”

As we gather up our shattered selves, let those sparks or rage or pain ignite something within us, restoring our commitment to those central tenants of our being, connecting us back to ourselves, to each other, and to God.

    “Blessed is our God Who treasures brokenness and Who guides all of us to lives of wholeness and purpose”.

Texts quoted in this sermon that you may want to look at for more on the topic of Judaism and Moral Injury:

Suzanne Shale’s full BMJ Leader “Moral injury and the COVID-19 pandemic: reframing what it is, who it affects and how care leaders can manage it”

“Insights into Moral Injury and Soul Repair in Classical Jewish Texts” by Rabbis Nancy Weiner and Kim Geringer in Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care: A Resource for Religious Leaders and Professional Caregivers 

Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts by Rita Nakashima Block, in particular the chapter by David Blumenthal entitled “Soul Repair: A  Jewish View that can also be found here” 


Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782