Soul Repair: A Jewish View

Part 3


David R. Blumenthal

This is the third installment  of a three-part series of essays that discuss the Jewish tradition’s answer to repairing the soul in the midst of wrongdoing, guilt, and shame. The first part used the biblical story of King David to illustrate the importance of taking ownership of one’s wrongdoing, though guilt alone is not enough to repair the soul. Part two explained teshuva, repentance, and the steps one must take in order to repair the soul through this process. Additionally, it explored the various kinds of forgiveness and what each of them entails and requires. Part three discusses the theme of moral injury as it applies to normal people who find themselves in situations that shift their sense of morality, such as war, and concludes this series by applying the steps of teshuva to situations in which people experience moral injury, the deep despair one experiences with the knowledge that one has committed an atrocity.

An earlier version of these essays in J. McDonald, ed., Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts, 33-46 (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Philadelphia: 2017); reprinted with permission of the editor and publisher.

Moral Injury as a Sign of Health

In the aftermath of World War II, an effort was made to discover why so many ordinary, good people went along with the horrors of the war. This led to a series of experiments in social psychology, loosely called “the obedience experiments,” the most important of which were the Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiments. It also led to a series of studies on perpetrators and bystanders during the war and in subsequent wars, chief among them being the study of German soldiers and the study of soldiers in the Vietnam War.

The results of these studies were overwhelmingly clear. Most ordinary, good people (65-90%) will do what an authority figure asks them to do without any coercion, as long as the authority is legitimate in their eyes, and the act demanded of them is thought to be part of some greater good. This holds true even if the act demanded of them is otherwise wrong. Thus, “teachers” will administer lethal shocks to innocent “learners,” and “prison guards” will severely punish innocent “prisoners.” Similarly, real soldiers and police officers will torture and even kill civilians who might be innocent.

This phenomenon was aptly described by Milgram. Normal social living requires us to submit to authority, first as children and later as employees, citizens, and so on. We do this by entering a “hierarchy of authority.” In the very act of accepting our place in the hierarchy, we agree to surrender part of our independent judgment. To put it differently: we all have a certain “moral agency”; and, by the very act of putting ourselves in any social hierarchy, voluntarily or otherwise, we surrender part of that agency to the authority of the hierarchy. This is called “agentic shift.” This happens to all of us when we accept employment in a corporation, when we work in a hospital, or when we join an organization.

Agentic shift occurs with particular force when one enters a hierarchy that deals with life and death, such as the military or the police. In these hierarchies, accepting the authority of a superior can mean the difference between life and death to oneself, to one’s comrades, and perhaps to a wider social group. It is normal and indeed healthy and necessary for soldiers to submit to the discipline of the military hierarchy, and that means that it is normal, healthy, and necessary for soldiers to sometimes do things that they would judge as wrong or forbidden in a non-military setting. There is an extensive literature on military ethics intended to help soldiers and the military hierarchy deal with this problem, but that cannot be dealt with here.

For this discussion here, we must note that as young people enter the armed services, they must be taught to kill on command. They must be taught to ignore the human instinct to avoid killing another human being unnecessarily. Basic training teaches them this through drills, repetition of “kill, kill, kill” cries, and training of the kill response. This also occurs through building a sense of full loyalty to one’s fellows, intense camaraderie, and a deep and abiding sense of meaning and purpose in life. War, even justified war, requires this. War requires an agentic shift.

Actual war conditions can, however, lead to killings that are doubtful, unnecessary, or cruel, or they can lead to unnecessarily cruel interrogation of prisoners. Actual war leads to such questions as: “Did that child really have a grenade, or only a rock?” “Was that group of people really violent?” There are many such doubts that accumulate during real combat. We have testimonies from men and women who killed someone by accident, or who killed someone in a doubtful situation, or who killed someone impulsively (perhaps in anger or in response to group thinking), or who killed someone who they thought, deep down inside, was innocent (such as a child or an old person). We also have testimonies from women and men who witnessed someone else kill another person in any of these ways and did not protest, or who witnessed someone else torture or dehumanize a prisoner and did not protest. We even have testimonies from some who killed or tortured often enough to the point that it eventually became a habit. War, even justified war, generates these morally terrible situations and these behaviors in good people—people who are soldiers, people who are just trying to serve their country loyally.

When young people leave the armed services and reintegrate into normal human society, their normal sense of morality returns. They regain their sense that killing or torturing is not something we do; rather, it is something we do not do. Thus, they regain their moral agency. Some of these young people begin to remember what they did, or what they saw others do, and they are ashamed; they feel guilty, deep in their souls. In their minds, they know they had no choice and that, at the time, they thought they were doing the right thing—and they were, because of the agentic shift into the military hierarchy. But, in their newly reintegrated minds and hearts, they doubt the morality of what they did. They know that they killed unnecessarily, and they feel terrible about it. They know that they were bystanders when some atrocity occurred, and they feel guilty for doing nothing about it. They know that they treated someone else cruelly, even an enemy person, and they feel ashamed, disgraced, and dishonored; they do not want to be called heroes. In their newly reacquired moral agency, they suffer from “moral injury.”

Moral injury is a sign of mental and moral health. In soldiers, moral injury is a sign that the combatant in them is being left behind and that the normal, moral human being in them is returning. But, the transition is terrible. Many turn to drugs or alcohol, many become depressed, many resort to violence, and many even contemplate or commit suicide to escape their shame and guilt. Moral injury is explained as follows:

Moral injury results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings. They may feel this even if what they did was warranted and unavoidable. Killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies, or failing to prevent such acts can elicit moral injury.

The consequences of violating one’s conscience … can be devastating. Responses include overwhelming depression, guilt, and self-medication through alcohol or drugs. Moral injury can lead veterans to feelings of worthlessness, remorse, and despair; they may feel as if they lost their souls in combat and are no longer who they were. Connecting emotionally to others becomes impossible for those trapped inside the walls of such feelings. When the consequences become overwhelming, the only relief may seem to be to leave this life behind.

Helping the Morally Injured: A Jewish View

Circling back to the first two pieces of this three-part series, we learn that guilt is a blessing, though guilt is not enough to repair the soul. One must first rejoin life. As the story of King David shows, one must learn to eat, to sleep, to wash, to love one’s family, to talk to other people, to get and hold a job, to manage one’s money, to participate in one’s religious community, to worship God, and to do good for others.

And, as the story of King David shows, one must also repair as best as one can. The morally injured, like all people who have committed a serious wrong, must follow the steps of teshuva. It makes no difference in which order one takes these steps, but all must be taken:

  • One must recognize one’s wrongdoings. One must admit to oneself and to one’s intimates that one did, in fact, commit the wrongs one committed. Denial is a cop-out, an escape from the truth. The truth, as terrible as it may be, gives us inner freedom.
  • One must feel remorse. One must feel guilty. If one did wrong, one must feel profoundly sorry and ashamed before oneself, before one’s intimates, and before God. This is not bad; rather, it is good, and it is necessary.
  • One must desist from wrongdoing. One must make a firm covenant with oneself, with one’s intimates, and with God that one will not commit such acts of violence again, or that one will not stand idly by the blood of one’s fellow human beings again.
  • One must confess one’s wrongs, formally, in some ritual way. One must seek forgiveness from others and atonement from God. One must establish a purification ritual of some sort and do it, more than once if necessary.
  • And, one must make restitution. How does one do that? What action can constitute “restitution” for having killed an innocent person? I suggest two steps.

First, develop a way of telling the story publicly. We have learned from working with survivors of the Holocaust and survivors of child sexual and physical abuse that being able to tell the story publicly is very healing. It is not easy to do. It is hard on the teller, and it is also hard on those who must listen. But, practice makes perfect. Take advice from others, and just do it. You need to tell it, and they need to hear it.

Second, find a cause and work for it. There are hundreds of worthy causes, and there are thousands of people who need your help: women who have been abused, children who are not being properly educated, women who are pregnant and do not want to abort the baby, people who are just plain hungry, people who are homeless, people who are unemployed, older people who are lonely, people who are sick with little chance for improvement, people abroad who are persecuted, people who are unjustly imprisoned, people who are opposed to nuclear war, and so on. These people need advocates. There are issues of war and peace,  pro-choice and pro-life, corruption and good government, and many more, all of which require action.

This type of work is called “prosocial behavior,” and there is a vast literature on this. Do something. Doing something prosocial is a form of restitution, a way of making good for a serious wrongdoing that one has committed. Doing good is a way to find meaning in life, and finding meaning is the core of healing.


Closing Meditations

Were the Lord not a help for me, my soul would sink rapidly into the silent depths. When I say, “My foot is slipping,” Your loving-kindness, Lord, sustains me. When my confusions are very great within me, Your comforts regale my soul (Ps 94:17–19).

Blessed be our God
Who created us for His own glory,
Who set us apart from those who wander aimlessly,
Who gave us His true teaching, and
Who implanted within us everlasting life.
May He open our hearts to His teaching.
May He put love of Him and fear of Him into our hearts to do His will with a full heart—so that we not strive for that which is empty and not be born only to be confused
(daily liturgy).


David R. Blumenthal teaches and writes on constructive Jewish theology, medieval Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and holocaust studies.  He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and eleven books, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and was the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University.