Taming the Beast:Trauma in Jewish Religious & Political Life

Sousan Abadian, Ph.D.

Tamar Miller, MSW MPA

Cambridge MA.

May 20, 2007

Thank you for not distributing without permission of the authors

Taming the Beast:

Trauma in Jewish Religious and Political Life

Traumas are not extraordinary on-the-margin occurrences, like a hurricane or a rape; but rather, traumas are common and pervasive. All we have to do is look and there it is in individuals, families, and collectively, in ethnic groups, peoples, states, countries, and nations. Here, we would like to tell the story of widespread trauma and its persistent effects.

Endemic violence is a particularly severe expression and consequence of widespread trauma.  Working with communities characterized by generational violence and poverty, Dr. Sousan Abadian, while at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, became convinced that unresolved collective trauma was one of the root causes of intractable conflict.  She observed that one way historical traumas are kept alive is through the reservoir of collective stories embedded in rituals, ceremonies, and various practices. These stories often have a narrative subtext from which people unconsciously draw lessons about themselves and others; and in many cases, these narrative subtexts create the context for the continuation of trauma into future generations.

Educated at Yeshiva University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Tamar Miller brings a Jewish Orthodox treasure-chest of knowledge of religious practices, as well as sensibilities about the treatment of trauma from a social work and community organizing perspective. With expertise in contemporary Middle East, people-to-people peace building, it is clear to her that trauma is a sorely neglected piece of peacemaking.  Here, based upon their combined experiences, Abadian and Miller consider how the dynamics of trauma continue to play out in Jewish political and religious life.  As a “Jew by choice” for 20 years, Dr. Abadian brings a fresh perspective and new ways to examine old stories.

Our intention here is to open a conversation in the Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora about how historical traumas continue to shape the meaning we make of our collective experience today. We hope to think together about how to continue to rally the rich and abundant resources in our tradition and collective life as our community seeks greater fulfillment, peace, and security.

Posttraumatic Narratives: The Quest for Meaning and Guidance

Collective trauma is much more than the sum of its individual parts and while it includes damage done to individuals, it is much more. Unhealed trauma to an individual has long-term debilitating effects and impairs capacity to forge loving and trusting relationships.  Imagine the exponential magnification of the damage when a whole community of individuals is hurt.  When trauma to a community is prolonged and extensive, the impact socially and culturally is immense, affecting all levels of political, spiritual, and economic life.  Alienation, mistrust, hopelessness and rage can become endemic, and over time, a trauma-informed worldview is embedded in the culture of a people.

After traumatic events or sustained traumatic experiences, peoples seek to make meaning of their collective experience, and one way this happens is through what Dr. Abadian calls posttraumatic narratives. The construction of stories attempts to create a semblance of order out of emotional chaos, and to make sense of the unfathomable. They are ways of managing thoughts and feelings about questions that often are forever unanswerable.

The way we fashion narratives following a collective injury has some typical patterns. We construct a story of what happened. Then we try to interpret the story about what happened. There are then some overt, surely covert, expressions and feelings we have about ourselves, others, and God.  The prevailing narrative that emerges from experiences of trauma is a composite of these objective and subjective elements.  In the long and short term, we attempt to glean meaning and moral lessons from the narratives that we have created out of our traumas.

Making meaning, however, is not a benign or neutral act because there are more or less constructive ways of making meaning.  Posttraumatic responses fall along a continuum of generative life-affirming narratives and toxic retraumatizing narratives. Both inform behaviors and both reflect as well as fulfill the underlying moral of the story.  If the story is allowed to be told and there are compassionate listeners who affirm our experience, explicitly and implicitly, challenging the despair, shame, rage, and isolation that are often the by-products of trauma, there can be collective healing.  In other words, ever-evolving narratives can prove to be generative over time so that individual relationships as well as international relations are repaired.

Narratives are not either healing or mal-adaptive; they range along a continuum from generative narratives to toxic narratives. The latter keep us stuck in some measure of distortion because some are disempowering narratives that tell a story of being seriously flawed, damaged, unworthy, isolated, lacking in support, helpless, and unsafe; and some are falsely empowering posttraumatic narratives which are grandiose, entitled, blaming, preoccupied with settling scores and getting revenge, categorically condemnatory,  disdainful, and righteously indignant.  Disempowering posttraumatic narratives are self-condemning, judging self and community as less than others; falsely empowering posttraumatic narratives condemn others and see themselves as superior.

One compassionate way we can think of both generative and toxic narratives is that as attempts to cope with the vicissitudes of life, they are in some measure adaptive.  Th­e very act of constructing a story especially after a traumatic event is an act of strength and agency.  Since trauma robs people and collectives of power and control, the very act of fashioning a narrative is asserting authorship over those events, allowing people to gain a degree of mastery over those events.  While all narratives may be thought to be adaptive, some are more or less constructive.  On the continuum, toxic posttraumatic narratives, for instance, can be filled with revenge and entitlement, which is a healthier narrative that one filled with utter hopelessness and collapse.  Still, while stories and wishes for revenge are healthier than relinquishment of all agency, they are not healthy.  If we were to assert a goal in collective healing toward peace and prosperity, it is to move up the continuum to more constructive narratives and the practices they engender.

The Jewish Chapter of a Universal Story

Looking through the lens of collective trauma begs questions about our current collective Jewish experience in the Diaspora and in Israel. What are the effects of years of collective trauma in Jewish history?  What are the narratives that guide us, inform our spiritual health, and our political choices?  If the creation of the State of Israel is a historical healing for Jews, then why as redeemer, is it a locus of more traumatic conflict?  Who is Ahmadinejad in our collective narrative?  What is Syria?  Who are the Amalikites?  What meaning do we make of the Palestinian Intifada? Can we have peace?  Do we have a traumatic history and a traumatizing future?  What are the narratives that emanate from the experience of trauma, and what meanings do we make and remake of our collective life?

When we say “never again,” what we mean is that we, as a community, will never again be in a position “of a sheep to slaughter,” our quintessential modern metaphor of trauma.  What we also mean is that we want to lay the past to rest, to free ourselves from the destructive hold that our traumatic pasts have on us. We know the anxiety and the terror of annihilation and the threats of annihilation; we know the risks; we know the possibility, if not the probability of evil. It is not, therefore, the past that we want to forget, nor do we want to abandon vigilance about a dangerous future. Rather, we believe that our collective task is to tame the effects of the traumas that continue to rage inside our collective life.  We do not want to fuel the effects of trauma so that they become so large that they continue to choke us with noxious gas. With that in mind, how do we tame this potentially toxic beast called trauma, and how do we continue to cultivate collective posttraumatic narratives that are healing and life-affirming so that we continue not only to survive, but to thrive?

Looking at the stories embedded in the Jewish experience of ritual, holidays, and politics is not an engagement in a theological conversation or in judgments about what are good or bad responses, but a look through a lens of typical human responses to trauma.  For our purposes here, we are not discussing cross border dynamics or competing narratives, say of Palestinians. We are not speaking about the story of the Other in relation to us. That is for another time once we take a look at ourselves.   Furthermore, we believe that we could use this frame of compassionate analysis of trauma to understand many different conflicts, for example among Turks, Armenians, Indians, Pakistanis, Shi’a, Sunni, American, Vietnamese, and so on.

We are not singling out Jews for scrutiny or judgment but rather we are applying notions of collective trauma to the particular community among nations and peoples that we know and love, a community that has repeatedly shown its strength and courage by looking critically in the mirror.

A Sampling of Our Religious and Political Narratives

Any number of Jewish communal life and religious stories might illuminate thinking through this rather new and risky subject. Questioning narratives that are familiar and at times paradoxically comforting, is also risky because all sorts of feelings — principally deep disloyalty — arise.  It feels risky because we are also trying to make conscious what is hidden, and trying to tease out our real fears from real threats; trying to stand with equanimity of mind and spirit while knowing some traumas are behind us and others are still with us. Here, we look at two examples and ask about the nature of our posttraumatic narratives: are they toxic or generative, or some combination of both?

First, we analyze the holiday of Pesach/Passover as a posttraumatic narrative following slavery 1300 BCE, 3300 years ago.  Second, we consider the rituals and stories of Purim, crafted about 500 BCE during the Jewish Babylonian exile, and later under the rule of Persian Kings, as a form of posttraumatic narrative.  In the future, we would like consider the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Israel’s war with Hezb’Allah in the summer of 2006 as modern posttraumatic narratives that shape collective action and are shaped by them.


The hagada, the primary narrative text that we use at the Seder on Passover, literally means “the telling.” Broadly, the first story in the hagada is, “We were slaves, now we are free people.” This is the title of our posttraumatic narrative and truly is a powerful generative life-affirming story. It is a narrative of agency and hope, and one that inspired many freedom movements around the world. Underneath its storyline is the subtext that God is on our side; we are a deserving people, worthy and capable of experiencing redemption. In this story, freedom is most prominent. What is fascinating is that this remains the Jewish foundational story for 3300 years, a story that does not deny or forget the trauma of slavery, and yet, renews the sense of hopefulness and healing each year. 

Pesach in this sense may have ignited hope and inspiration for our own rescue and revival (with the help of the UN) following the quintessential trauma of the holocaust.  The creation and sustaining of the State of Israel, in part, makes concrete Pesach’s generative narrative of freedom.  In religious Zionist terms, this is “hitchalta d’geula” (literally, the beginning of messianic redemption). In secular Zionist terms, Israel’s existence harks back to the story of the Maccabees, embedding proud independence in the collective generative narrative. These stories are wishes to reconcile traumatic experience with healing and practical actions.  The combined narrative of the birth of Israel includes a belief in divine intervention coupled with the strength of human agency.  The new generative story is hope, literally, “hatikvah,” the title of the Israeli national anthem.

While the subtext of freedom dominates on Passover, there are other competing narrative strands that are expressed, particularly during times of threat. That is, there is another posttraumatic strand in the story, one that holds another side of our response to slavery, persecution, and anti-Semitism. We faithfully recite, “In every generation they rise up against us to annihilate us…”    This narrative strand is one of mistrust, despair, fear, never-ending pain. The subtext is “They will always hate us. It was like that and will always be.” There is also the narrative subtext of ‘‘we hate them” expressed as the appeal to God in the prayer shfoch hamatcha (“pour out your wrath upon the nations”).

These proclamations of the nature of Jewish destiny and appeal for revenge are probable expressions of traumatization. The redactors of the Hagada lived under Roman persecution. They sought inspiration from the God of the Exodus, meaning the redemptive God, and at the same time, they were under the influence of an ongoing trauma. It is not surprising, therefore, that a plea for revenge and the belief in inexorability of trauma into the future forever is also part of our freedom story.  It is worth asking how these differing strands of the posttraumatic narratives combine to guide current Jewish political perception and action.


The story of Purim takes place about 500 BCE or 2500 years ago, following the Babylonian exile of the Jews and eventual settlement in Persia under Persian rule.  The first strand of the Purim storyline follows the Jewish joke, “they tried to destroy us, we prevailed, let’s eat.”   On a deeper, more serious note, according to the Mishna, on the Shabbat before Purim we are supposed to read the story in Exodus about Amalek, the symbol of evil incarnate.  Amalek is considered a progenitor of Haman, the would-be destroyer of the Jews in the Purim story.  And who have we now deemed to be their successor?

Jews feel under great threat today from what we call Islamic fundamentalism, so much so that we bring the story of Purim to the current threat we are experiencing from today’s Persia.  President Ahmadinejad of Iran has been called another Haman, and we presume that all Iranians are out to get Israelis.  But is this true?  If we were to lift the veil of trauma, might we find that Jews today are in a radically different position in the universe than in 500 BCE? How many Jews know that Iranian students protested Ahmadinejad during the Holocaust-denying conference in Teheran, and put their lives at risk to do so?

Our ability then to make distinctions between the evil of Amalek, the hatefulness of Haman, and today, the threat of Ahmadinejad, might be impaired in essential ways.  Looking through a lens focalized by trauma can cloud our capacity to discern real differences.  Traumatizing experiences draw the attention of traumatized people repeatedly. The visceral experience of what happened, as well as the feeling states they conjure up are rage, despair and mistrust.  This galvanized attention deepens cultural grooves, so that returning to these images, thoughts, and feelings can become almost habitual default settings.

Likewise, after a terror attack in Jerusalem on a city bus, we often add other attackers to the string of haters.  For example, some see Nazis in Hamas and Hamas in all Palestinians.  This narrative understandably dominates under threat, but it is a toxic narrative, meaning that is destructive, we suggest, because it covers over distinctions and inhibits discernment.

The most dramatic example of the causal circular arrow from fear to hatred to attack, and to entrenched fear again, is the murder-suicide of Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron after the reading of the Megillah on Purim morning in 1994.  Goldstein was a physician living on the West Bank who treated many wounded Jews from Palestinian terror attacks, and some say in his defense that he just saw too much Jewish agony.  For our non-political purposes here, Goldstein and his supporters created a posttraumatic narrative in a retraumatizing setting and so the Purim story, taken literally, sees Arabs as Amalakites, the archetype of wanton evil directed at us.

Goldstein left the synagogue with his trauma blinders on and could not differentiate, could not discern at that moment of passion between 29 Muslim worshippers, men and young boys in a mosque, and imminent anti-Semitic threat of annihilation.  With traumatic blinders on (and our guess is with some disinhibiting alcohol adding to his dehumanizng Kahana ideology) Goldstein could not feel safe enough or trusting enough that the government of the sovereign State of Israel and her powerful defense forces would protect him, his family, and community.  Goldstein expressed Purim in modern terms as a national and religious imperative heroically to protect Jews in danger, only to create another traumatizing tragedy of immense proportions.  The wisdom on the street from the people who knew Goldstein was that he was not crazy.  No, he was not crazy.  He was a man in the clutches of what served as a toxic posttraumatic narrative in the context of a retraumatizing Intifada.

A vengeful slaughter also appears at the conclusion the Megillah recounting – the slaying of 20,000 people in battle because they supported Haman.  There is a good deal of discussion of this in the Talmud, and the Rabbis were very uneasy about celebrating the death of 20,000 people, even enemies.  Perhaps it happened, they said.  Perhaps not.  From a trauma lens, we consider the possibility that it is an attempt at a restorative fairy tale by an oppressed people to cope with expulsion, oppression, and near annihilation.  In fact, it is a toxic narrative of revenge born from trauma, inhibiting generative fantasies. We would like to suggest the radical notion that a truly restorative tale would be Persians celebrating the survival of its Jews.  

Is Purim a retraumatizing story, a generative narrative, or both?  The Megillah is certainly a narrative that has agency and audacity. The story revolves around the fortitude of Esther and Mordechai who cleverly manipulate an entire empire.  But notice again the posttraumatic strain and how the victory over those who seek to destroy the Jews is framed as having taken place in utter isolation, without help at all.  This narrative strand mirrors the saying in Numbers: “We are a nation that dwells alone” Am l’vadad yishkon. The narrative subtext is “We have no allies and if we do, we cannot rely on them in the long-term.”  The Megillah does not even overtly mention God. (Esther Astir).

This is typical of all traumatized people. We know from our experience in healing and clinical settings that traumatized people find it immensely difficult to reach out to others and make alliances because of their deep mistrust.  They do not believe that anyone or anything can help.  Not surprising then, that this disempowering posttraumatic strand or subtext is part of the Purim story.

Paradoxically, this subtext that “we are alone” is not only a disempowering narrative strand but can also reflect a falsely empowering strand as well, because it is not open to the possibility that others may have provided assistance to Jews.  Did Esther and Mordechai effectively influence Ahashvarosh into acting against Haman to save their people solely on their creativity and craft, or did the King also have Haman and his sons hung willingly?  While Ahashvarosh, in the end, did not undo the decree of annihilating the Jews, one likely interpretation is that he did not enjoy absolute power in the kingdom but had serious rivals.  He did say the Jews could defend themselves, offering some reprieve from genocide and the permission to confront their adversaries head-on.

The stories we focus on and memorialize tend to be those that confirm our preconceived notions of reality. A tendency not to acknowledge acts of assistance and even generosity is a common reaction following trauma.  Traumatic experiences are times of such immense terror, helplessness, and sense of abandonment that acts of assistance are easily filtered out by trauma-distorted perceptual filters.  Also, traumatized people often feel undeserving of assistance, and so do not acknowledge it directly.  In any case, the more toxic narrative that follows trauma is often having had to do it all alone.

It is no surprise then that while we commemorate Purim, we have no formal remembrance of a much more significant piece of Jewish Persian history and figure — Cyrus, the Zoroastrian king who freed Jews from the Babylonian exile and helped rebuild the Second Temple, as told in Chronicles, and ultimately included in our Canon.  How would our self-perception and relationships with others change if we were to take in that we have a history not just of persecution but also of support (and in this case, by a non-Jewish superpower)?  Instead, what we reinforce each year is the narrative subtext of the Megillah that “we have to do everything ourselves, and have done everything by ourselves.”  It is this ritualized narrative that is held as a truth.  Extrapolated to the collective of the Jewish people and the State of Israel today, these disempowering and falsely empowering narratives may add weight to the need to hold on to an absolute existential sense of isolation.

As with Passover, the commemoration of Purim reflects both the generative narrative strand of Jews confronting oppression and the threat of annihilation, as well as the more toxic narratives as if Jews had no allies, no other way to get help.  The next time we celebrate Purim, might we ask ourselves which interpretive strand prevails – the one that is more life- affirming, or the one that separates us further from others, and is in the end less adaptive because it interferes with building better relations with non-Jews?

Is There an End to the Story?

Becoming conscious of varying strands in our religious and national narratives is important because collective expressions deeply reflect and influence how we think about others and ourselves.  Without consciousness, narrative subtexts shape our beliefs, and without notice can misguide how we act in the world.

Surely, some toxic or disempowering narratives are not totally false, which in some measure is the basis of their power.  While there is truth to their storyline, the problem is that they are extreme narratives — all and nothing, right and wrong, trusting and untrusting, bad and good.  The worlds’ terrorists are formidable, governments with high-powered weapons can be deceitful with devastating effects, life can hurt badly, and parts of our selves and the collective can be broken.  Still, these are only part of our collective story, only part of the time.

Understanding how trauma insinuates itself into communal and political life may inspire and guide our collective tasks in making the world a safer more joyful place.  Utilizing what we know about the dynamics of trauma, we might shape better policy, build healthier civil societies, engage in more productive cross border negotiations, and enhance Jewish communal practices. This may be so because understanding the dynamics of collective trauma counteracts extreme reactivity and opens us up to the possibility of more nuanced thinking and less fear.  By employing a deeper understanding of the power and effects of trauma, our hope is that we will be better quipped to mediate polarized public conversations and violent international conflicts. Our prayer is to bring more discernment to our community as we become more practiced at folding in more of the reality of now.

Because “now” includes in it ongoing collective trauma for our people, we must stay awake to the fact that its toxins are powerfully at work.  The recent withdrawal from Gaza by Israel is one such example of the dynamic processes of constructing and reconstructing our stories. The drama of the summer of 2005 underscores how we might be able to mitigate the effects of trauma and disentangle ourselves from its beastly clutches.  A generative subtext that may have been at work was “We, the Jews of Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the Jews of the world are strong enough to withdraw – morally, spiritually, and militarily.” The moral of the story is “Good things can happen through our own agency, will, and strength, with God’s help.”

The “disengagement” from Gaza, dismantling of the settlements, hothouses, synagogues, and gravesites offers an opportunity to take a closer look at the role that leaders can play in instilling faith and hope, perhaps softening the sharpest edges of the traumatic experience. Despite deep theological and political differences within the entire Israeli population, disengagement happened not only without violence but also with dignity.  Before the withdrawal, civil strife, even civil war was part of the political landscape of possibility. What was at play that contributed to the nonviolent disengagement?

Ariel Sharon (whether you agreed with him or not regarding the political wisdom of the action) used his authority to help create a relatively peaceful set of events, reducing violent traumatic damage within Israel.  The holding environment was strong as widespread public conversation on television and radio, as well as psychological trainings with political leaders, border police, and IDF commanders, mediated Messianic dreams with political agency. Sharon’s strength helped civil society increase empathy in disparate segments of the Israeli population before the disengagement. The country prepared for the trauma, thus reducing its potentially deadly damage.

The collective posttraumatic narrative, soon after the withdrawal, began to shift back into despair with great speed once Palestinians did not respond peaceably. Palestinian factions continued to shell communities in the south of Israel without let up and the Jewish narrative once again was “We did everything; we gave everything; it didn’t work.”  It is true that the attempt to alter the story and the outcome, as well as repair the relationships did not work right away. Healing traumas and repairing traumatizing relationships do not happen in one fell swoop and certainly cannot happen unilaterally. At another time, we would like to take look at how traumatic narratives and their dynamics play out in Palestine. For now, suffice it to say, healing trauma is a long-term relational endeavor.

The Gaza experience and Israeli’s war with Hezb’Allah the following summer of 2006 begs the question about whether Israeli and Diaspora Jews should stick with the collective story “They all hate us…and always will. We are alone.” If these prevailing toxic narratives are not challenged effectively, despair develops into more enduring pain, stifling creative solutions.  Boundaries drawn between “us” and “them” become ever more rigid. Over time, alienation generates collective narratives of “better than” and “less than” – one religion, one culture, and one people better than another in essential ways.  In extreme cases, parts of our community tend to dehumanize and even demonize the Other. Dread and despair dominate again – a characteristic response to trauma.

With so much fear in the picture, individually and collectively, we can have a great deal of trouble with discernment – who really is the enemy?  Trauma tends to engender monolithic thinking, often propelling a dynamic of false empowerment that turns into righteous indignation and contempt for the undifferentiated Other. Was this traumatic response at work during what was framed as an existential war between Hezb’Allah and Israel? Is it difficult for us as a collective to make precise distinctions between Hezb’Allah, the government of Lebanon, other Arab and Muslim states, and Arabs and Muslim people, more generally? At its worst, the downward spiral of undifferentiated fear fuels everything from indifference to aggression to violence.

What we know now is that trauma is not the whole story. There are other stories to tell, other supports and resources to employ for safety, prosperity, and peace.  Let us ask: Are we truly alone or did high-level representatives of thirty-eight nations from all corners of the earth show up for Rabin’s memorial become testimony to the possibility of peace?  Even when we are in the midst of trauma and fear, it is still possible to discern between the frozen traumatic past and today’s emerging realities.  Making this distinction allows us to solve today’s problems, as well as to enjoy today’s blessings.

More purposeful, generative narratives allow our minds and hearts to open more graciously toward productive conversations and relationships. We are a healthy community with a medicine cabinet full of balanced and optimistic collective narratives that tell of getting through dark times, and how we and other peoples are deserving of joy and dignity.  We employ humor and joyful celebrations of gratitude to balance out the reality of suffering and terror of threat.  Healthy narratives sooth the effects of catastrophes, and we ask the question more pointedly about whether generative narratives may even avert some of the harshest effects of trauma. Some of our ceremonies to heal our wounds of the Holocaust held at Yad V’shem like honoring the “righteous gentiles”, emphasize a sense of optimism that reinforce our worth as well as the worth of others. We are telling ourselves that our traumatic past does not have to hold us captive to a dark future.  Deeply embedded Jewish values of pursuing justice also helps channel our traumatic past and parts of our traumatic present into enlightened action.

In attempting to loosen trauma’s strong grip, a formidable challenge is managing the sense of disloyalty that inevitably arises.  It is difficult to challenge narratives that we have come to consider true because our ancestors have handed them down to us.  Beautiful young men who fought Israel’s wars shall be honored; memories of our tortured relatives in the Shoah live in us; ruinous tremblings of a destroyed temple reverberate today; and because the dead soldiers’ sacrifices are sacred, we stay loyal.  Our challenge is fierce. As we “choose life” (u’bachartem ba’chaim), is it possible to maintain loving loyalty to our ancestors, our Temples, our sacrifices, to old ideas and feelings, and do so without retraumatizing ourselves?

“Live the questions now, perhaps then, someday in the future, without noticing it, you will live your way into the answer.”  –Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet

Published Winter/Spring 2008 in Journal of Jewish Communal Service, vol 83, No. 2/3.