Transcending the Trauma of the Holocaust

[Email conversation about healing from collective trauma. Participants include Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center; Rabbi Shefa Gold, director of C-DEEP, the Center for Devotional, Energy & Ecstatic Practice, author of Torah Journeys, composer of many chants and songs; Rabbi Mordechi Liebling, faculty, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Board of The Shalom Center; Arlene Goldbard, president of the Board of The Shalom Center; Jill Hammer and Holly Taya Shere, co-founders of Kohenet; Rabbi Brian Walt, founding director of Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America. 
(January 2010)]

Dear chevra --   
Two months ago I  wrote some scattered thoughts about healing from trauma, which arose as I dealt with my own post-surgery pains and  Phyllis' creative efforts to work with me past them, even in the  midst of them.
 I was trying to draw on my own experience out of my car crash to go beyond individual trauma toward collective healing --  especially groping toward ways  of moving the Jewish people beyond PTSD from the Shoah, the  Palestinians beyond PTSD from the Naqba, for that matter the whole planet beyond the death march we are on now.  
Several of you responded with very interesting thoughts. (I am  reproducing, below, my letter back then and letters that came  in response.)  And I've also had some very helpful phone  conversations - for example, one with Arlene Goldbard of The Shalom  Center's  board about not getting too attached to the "PTSD"  medicalization model, for a cultural situation, or at least to one specific version of how to deal with it, and to keep in mind how  diverse are different individuals' responses to trauma.    
 So I am very interested in continuing this conversation, sharing the different perspectives from the different approaches of  artists,  liturgists, meditators, psychotherapists, spiritual directors , and  social activists  (and of course the diverse outlooks within each of them as well). I am hoping that for many or all of you, this will be  attractive as a conversation that might enrich your own work.    I am even imagining that there might even emerge some shared vision  or clusters of visions   -- shared among some of us, not likely all  ---  of what might be healing action or practice.  
I keep recalling  that according to Aristotle, the ancient Greek tragedies - which  included in a holistic unity what we would divide up into   "religion" and "art" and "history" -- achieved, or tried to achieve, that kind of collective catharsis.
 During these last two months I've been so focused on my own healing  I couldn't take the next step. Now I would like to.  Actually there are two next steps:
 1. I hope many  -- even all - of you will feel drawn to join this  conversation by writing your thoughts and pressing "Reply all."
 2. I would like  to get as many of us possible in a room together,  here in Philadelphia, for a single day, from 10 am sharp to 4 pm  sharp, including a conversational lunch.  If you would be seriously  interested in meeting that way, please write me to that effect. With those who do, I will work out a "Meeting Wizard" or some other form  of Internet magic to work out a day when many could gather. Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Here, first, is my letter of early September: One of the ways in which Phyllis and I tried to strengthen our own  healing was to draw on two sets of healing chants.  One set came in a DVD that Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi sent us of  his own deep, warm voice chanting healing passages of Torah. It felt  to me like the warm and comforting bath that one of the nurses here  had given me earlier in the day: Where the  bath had poured warmth,  flow, and gentleness onto my skin, Zalman's chants had poured the same qualities into "four worlds" of me  -- sound, emotion, wisdom,  and the Spirit.  
The other set came through Phyllis' leading me in Rabbi Shefa Gold's  Isaiah chants from the Haftarot of Consolation and from Shir HaShirim.  The chants  from the seven Prophetic passages of consolation carried  rabbinic teaching  to read them on the seven Shabbats between  marking the disaster of the Destruction of the Temples and the  transformative reconnection with God on Rosh Hashanah.   
These chants were originally aimed at collective consolation,  freeing the people from the nightmare of Destructions.  Yet here  they were 2,000 years or so later, deeply affecting us, moving us toward our own individual consolations.  I think that the Mid-summer Mourning and the Seven Shabbats may  actually have helped "console" the Jewish people and helped them  move into the healing modes of Rabbinic Judaism.
One of the  questions that arose for me as I thought about the Seven Weeks was - what was / could be the role in his process of Tu B'Av, or what  Phyllis calls Yah b'Av? Was this celebration of sexual energy, led by women, crucial to getting past mid-summer burnout, even before  the First Destruction?  And later, getting past Tisha B'Av?  Today the Jewish people  needs healing from the trauma of the  Holocaust. Israel set up the Yom Ha'Shoah/  Yom Ha'Atzma'ut rhythm  deliberately to say that Israel IS the healing, but I  don't think  that theologically or politically, this is turning out to be true.  It's closer to adopting the disease as the cure. It certainly  doesn't celebrate the juices of life as Yah B'Av does.  
Could some fusion of liturgy, meditation, dance, social-communal "therapy,"  and social action ---  a day , a week, a series of  practices every day??  ===  help us  into healing/ release from the  Shoah and entry into the new paradigm of Judaism?    
And it's not just the Jews. The Palestinian people needs healing  from the trauma of the Naqba. Many displaced and shattered peoples  on our planet have been suffering through earthquakes of  destruction. The whole human race is standing on the edges of an  earthquake,  as thousands of species that have been our companions  for our whole history are dying, and the climate that has nurtured  us and challenged us  is cracking apart.   Many of these collective traumas create deeply wounded individuals.  Some of these deeply wounded people then move on to create new  collective traumas.  What are we to do? How are we to heal?   Is it possible to heal a  people, a nation, a culture?    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
From Mordechai Liebling:
Hi All,  Yes, the Jewish people needs healing from the Shoah, as a people we are stuck in the pain, we have cultural PTSD.  Avram Burg's book The Holocaust is Over  is an incisive analysis of the effect of the Shoah on Israel. The effect is much more severe there.
 I believe that one advantage US diaspora culture has over Israel is  that we are less stuck in the pain of the Shoah. Arthur's shalom center email about elul, ramadan and healing ends  with questions about how we respond to the great pain that the world  is in.
 I think that we Jews along with all other people need to  focus on the universal threat to the life on earth-- and that is a  way to get past our particular pain.  To use our fears about  extinction/extermination as window into the predicament of the planet.  I think the universalizing of our experience at this point  may be the best process of consolation.
  I just spent 12 days at a Joanna Macy retreat, The Work that Reconnects.  She teaches the importance of feeling the pain that of what is happening to the earth and all of us.  We live in a culture that thrives on numbing people to pain. Our liturgy and rituals help  us to  appreciate the beauty and wonder of creations and it, also,  now needs to help us be open to the pain of  our precious Water  being poisoned, of our fertile, rich Earth  experiencing desertification, of our spirit medium Air being  desecrated and of our relatives in the Chain of Being becoming  extinct.    
I think we need liturgy and rituals that can used throughout the  year for this purpose.  The redemptive feature of suffering and mourning is the ability to universalize from it.  We need to turn our mourning from the Shoah into  compassion and insight for the current threat to the planet which  can kill many times more people.  
I look forward to respones.  Love and blessings, Mordechai ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
From  Jill Hammer  
    My own sense of Tu b'Av is that it  functions both as a  celebration of the earth's fertility (dancing and   vineyards) and as a rising of life out of death, as in the midrash  from Eicha  Rabbah about the deaths of the wilderness generation after the  decree of forty   years' wandering:    
R. Levi said: On every eve of the 9th of Av Moses used to send a herald   through the camp and announce: 'Go out to dig graves.' They would go out and   dig graves and sleep in them. In the morning he would send a herald and say:  'Separate the dead from the living.' They would arise and find their number   diminished.
In the last of the forty years, they did this but  found themselves  undiminished. They said; we must have made a mistake in counting.  They did the   same thing on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and  fifteenth, but still no one died.
When the moon was full, they  said: 'The Holy   One has annulled the decree from all of us.' So they made the fifteenth a   holiday.                         
 Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue 13     
When I teach this midrash, my students often note that the digging of one's   own grave is a Holocaust image, and in reply I point out that it is also an   image of shamanic initiation, healing and rebirth.
Perhaps you  could use this   midrash in some way, to create a ritual in which the Jewish people heal from   their trauma and stop 'digging our own graves' in the sense of identifying   with the traumatic deaths of our recent ancestors.  
Perhaps this midrash   points us to using Tu b'Av as a way of passing through trauma and initiating   ourselves into healing.   
 I also wonder if the seven weeks of consolation are like the seven weeks of   the Omer and could be treated the same way: i.e. by counting the 49 days and  using them as a healing for our national middot, in the same way  that the Omer   is used for one's personal middot.
Perhaps the Isaiah chants and chants of  refuah could be used as part of this 49-day practice as well.    May healing and renewal come to all places, times, and hearts in need.    L'shalom,    Jill ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

From Holly Taya Shere:  
Yes, the Jewish people are, indeed, a people with PTSD, from the  Shoah and from the legacy of persecution that is part of our core narrative---the trauma is present on cellular level and has been  reinforced by the stories we retell again and again.   
The blessing  is that we are poised at a unique moment in time. The freeze (in reaction to the Shoah trauma) is beginning to wear off for many of  us, and it seems that, as a people, we are ripe for creating a new  story and experience.  We are preparing for a paradigm-shift that in trauma-healing lingo would be marked as the shift from trauma vortex  to healing vortex.   
 Trauma propels the nervous system into fight, flight or freeze  (freeze is the last of the three stages, when fight or flight have  been thwarted).   
I see fight present in oppressive Israeli policy  and action, as well as in diasporic support of these engagements.   And in the estrangements dividing so many Jewish families,  including my own.
 I see flight present in Jews desperately seeking  connection elsewhere--with a myriad of beyond-Jewish spiritual traditions, with partners of many faiths.  (I am not criticizing this flight response---it is a path I myself have taken and receive  much value from-- but it is important to name that when such choices  are coming from a place of flight, there is less spaciousness and  freedom than is ideal).    
When we emerge from freeze into presence, or when we slow and soften  the fight or flight responses, possibilites of integration, healing and wholeness abound.  Body practice and increased somatic awareness are primary elements in healing from trauma--I'm deeply heartened by  the increasing evolution of an embodied Judaism, and pray that one day soon our identity as a People of the Book will be fully matched  by our experience being a People of the Body.  
Many trauma-healing modalities hold that trauma is stored in the  nervous system and can only be truly transformed inside of a safe  and connected container.  Trauma and healing have separate vortices, and whichever is fed will grow.
Trauma is transformed by  strengthening the healing vortex---once we have a strong and safe  container, then we can effectively make space for the places of pain  to be touched by what is well. To this end, Somatic Experiencing (the modality I've trained in) practitioners engage a principle  called 80/20, in which 80 percent of our attention is given to what  is connected, safe and whole.  From that connected place, space is made (about 20 percent) for activation/trauma/whatever-is-needing-healing to emerge and release.        
 I believe that work toward transforming collective trauma and  strengthing our collective healing vortex is most effectively  engaged in an extended time frame (with sustainability trumping  intensity), and that the seven weeks could be an ideal time to engage this work.  I love Arthur's idea of evolving ritual/action/newliturgies during this period, and very much  resonate with Jill's suggestion of parralleling the omer-counting--I imagine mapping trauma-healing practices onto the journey from Tu  b'Av onward.  And a big yes to Mordechai's invocation of Joanna  Macy's work and recognizing how important it is to engage and be informed by the elements and the more-than-human-world in this  process.  I look forward to reading others thoughts...  Embodiment blessings,  Holly   ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
On Nov 11, 2009, at 2:54 PM, Rabbi Brian Walt wrote:
I think there is a fundamental difference between communal and personal trauma.  Israeli and American Jewish leaders continually use the Holocaust  re-traumatizing Jews as a way of ensuring that we remain loyal to our tribe and that we "support Israel".
Every person who is taken to Yad Vashem, every compulsory course on the Holocaust, not to mention countless other ways in which the trauma of the Holocaust is exploited to enhance tribal solidarity, is a repetition of the trauma, searing it into our collective bones and souls.
As Mordechai pointed out the frame that is given to the Holocaust is to emphasize it as OUR communal tragedy, unique among all tragedies and suffering and it is used every day and in every way to ensure support for Zionism and Israel.  Just this past week I saw a news item about concern over the practice among young Israelis to wrap themselves in huge Israeli flags when they visit Auschwitz on their compulsory ritualised trips to the death camps.  
(A related aside: In Galya's class in West Tisbury the only thing they have been taught about Jewish civilization is the Holocaust and they already went last year at age 11 to visit the Holocaust memorial in Boston.  Galya is the only Jewish kid in her class and the only thing her friends have been taught about her culture is the Holocaust.)
In my mind a strategy for healing is to address it on the level of public policy more than on the level of individual healing. Both may be important but the obsession with our trauma and suffering and it's use to ensure tribal affiliation, solidarity and support for Israel should be the focus of our work. We must universalize the message of the Holocaust, our suffering is not unique, in fact it links us to humanity and human history which is unfortunately full of stories of suffering, some of which dwarf the unbelievable suffering of our people, if we must engage in comparison.  
How do we  stop using the trauma of the Holocaust as a strategy in our schools and religious institutions to sustain Jewish identity and to promote loyalty to the Jewish State.  Our task is to develop alternative visions of Judaism and Jewish identity that aren't so rooted in response to suffering and in the view that all of Jewish history is about suffering.  
Thanks, Arthur for asking the question and thanks to all for being involved in this conversation.
Many Blessings,
On Wed, Nov 11, 2009 at 7:03 PM, Arlene Goldbard <> wrote:
Thank you, Brian, for illuminating so clearly issues that have been troubling to me.
For me, a key question about trauma (social or personal, given that much trauma is both) is identification. What has been most disturbing to me is the extent to which some of us identify with our suffering. It becomes our essence, something we cannot surrender without surrendering identity.
This is hard ground in which to cultivate any sort of life, but it is especially unlikely to yield a crop of empathy-and I agree with Brian and Mordechai, empathy is essential. In my view, coming to see others as fully human and equal to oneself is the only antidote to what otherwise seems an inbuilt tendency of those who see themselves as victims to victimize others when the tables are turned.
I've worked with a great many artists whose focus is healing trauma. Through theater, dance, visual depictions, they help people to express and externalize their own pain and promise, together creating something that has beauty and meaning. Bringing this material out into the world through art invites compassion and commonality. A common response from young refugees or abuse survivors is some variation on this statement by a young participant in the Documentary Project for Refugee Youth (which I wrote about along with many others in my book New Creative Community <> ):
"I felt like there is no person who suffered more than me. But then, talking to other people and finding out that it's not just me, that it's half the world. Before I didn't know there were so many conflicts and wars, and now that I know, and have the opportunity to do something about it, I want to let other people know."
I worry about the notion one hears that we Jews haven't mourned enough, that somehow that is the problem. I have been thinking about the many broken people I have encountered in small Jewish renewal communities: a woman of 80 who is as aggrieved with her cold father as if she were still eight; a middle-aged man who each week brings in new clippings to prove a resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiment sufficient to justify comparison to the Nazis; and so on.
In my experience, people who are stuck this way may have repeated their grievance and expressed their loss and suffering almost non-stop; I don't think there is a quantity of mourning sufficient to satisfy them. (Although I understand that from some therapeutic perspectives, the response would be that it isn't quantity but quality, doing it the right way.) From what I have seen, the challenge is to wrench their attention away from the specialness they believe is conferred by their suffering (or their ancestors'), to notice and engage with the larger world, which gives them the opportunity to act with compassion toward others, and thereby to complete a tikkun for their own injuries by helping to avoid their repetition in others' lives.
I have been doing quite a bit of work with community organizers, who are pointing out that contrary to longstanding belief, it isn't conveying how bad things are that mobilizes people to act, but rather the prospect of something concrete and feasible they can do to make a difference. I think there are many ways to convert the energy of inherited suffering that breeds fear and defensive paralysis into the energy that is compassion in action. To me, that is the fruitful focus.
Hi  from Mordechai:
Thank you Brian and Arlene for your clarifying comments.  
I think we are all saying, in one way or another, that the challenge is to get people to turn the pain from an individual to a universal experience.  My hunch is that different people need different modalities for doing it.
And I think what Arlene wrote about collectively turning it into art may be the one that can reach the widest number.  (My bias is that part of that process is that one has to feel the pain  -- what I was trying to say in the previous email was that Jews often feel the despair or fear but not the actual pain, they indulge in suffering but don't fully engage in the pain).
For example one exercise that I found powerful (I think I learned this from Ellen Weaver) is to visualize Jews being killed, and focus on one person and hold that person as s/he is dying, helping the person along in death. And the purpose is not to build a Jewish identity around the Holocaust- but build one around compassion.  I could imagine adding another step to the exercise by visualizing someone else dying in another genocide and holding him/her.
As for organizing- yes most good organizing is based on hope for a better life.  Studies of revolutions show that it is not the most oppressed who rebel but those who have had some glimpse or hope of a better life.  The corollary is that fascist seizure of power is supported by middle or solid working class people who have lost what they once had.
 I know that for me (a son of two sole survivors) when I was able to appreciate what I gained from their experience and have been brought up by them- it was a profound healing.  I hope we can get to a day when the Jewish people reap the harvest of our collective experience to be an agent of healing in the world--(interesting how so many Jews do it as individuals but collectively it is much harder).
Peace and blessings,
On 11/7/09 3:53 PM, Shefa Gold <> wrote:
Hi Everyone,
Thank you for the conversation. i am right now in Berlin, where I am teaching a weekend workshop and where I will celebrate the confluence of Kristalnacht and the 20th anniversary of the wall coming down- two shatterings. The shattering of destruction and the shattering of the walls that we have built to keep each other out or to close off our hearts. In looking for the relationship between these two shatterings, I see that when we don't heal the trauma, then we build walls for protection, but those walls become our prison. And then our work is in reintegrating all the energy that was cut off, walled off by trauma.
I few years ago I began asking the question, "What is the Journey from Devastation to Renewal?"  As I entered deeply into the process of inquiry, it seemed that this question was everywhere- in the earth, and in the eyes of so many people that I was serving as rabbi, and in my own heart as I try to activate the full force of my presence and love and heal the wounds of the past.
It seemed to me that the passage from TishaB'Av to Rosh Hashana in our Jewish calendar was a map of that journey and that Isaiah might be our guide... so I immersed myself in his 7 Haftorot of consolation and created practices from his words that addressed various aspects of Devastation. Each time I taught this process as a retreat, I learned more about how we carry those devastations inside us and how those energies might be released.
The question remains, "As I do this work at a personal level, is it possible to dedicate this healing to the larger healing of my tribe?" While I work on healing my own heart, I share my journey in order to inspire others. I create tools for myself and others to use in their own healing. I have an awareness of my own heart as a microcosm of the larger heart.
One aspect of my strategy of releasing the affects of trauma is to enter ecstatic states, places where I can have an expanded perspective of my life's predicaments and from there channel compassion from the Source to the broken places. From those ecstatic states, I can enter a kind of spaciousness in which bitterness is sweetened and obstacles dissolve.
I am grateful to share in this healing work together with you.
From Arthur:  This ecstatic aspect is missing from all the official efforts at collective "healing" from the Shoah. The nearest analogue is Yom HaAtzmaut, but that is so focused on safety and a political institution that it seems to me that ecstasy doesn't enter into it. What would that mean for us, collectively? Is Y'H B'Av a pointer, together with Shir HaShirim?
Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur

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