Rav Soloveitchik and social issues: PTSD

Red cow ashes-a Divine PTSD treatment

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Jewish cemetery
Jewish cemetery

The ‘traumatic’, (challenging) divine gift of life, and the traumatic, divine decree of death

Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings concerning the divine mystery of life and the cruel mystery of death may help us gain new understanding concerning the ‘beyond rationality’ Torah laws concerning one who has become impure by touching a human corpse. The Rav’s basic teaching is that that the performance of G-d’s  mitzvot enables us to experience our life events in their fullest, most mature existential meaning.  The mitzvoth are G-d’s way of teaching us the existential truths of life.

In this vein, the Rav teaches that that it is incumbent upon us to become highly, existentially sensitive to the meaning of Both a divinely given life, AND a divinely determined death (their existential meaning is intimately intertwined). In very colloquial terms, the Rav teaches that the Torah expects that we experience gratitude in ‘traumatic’, existential terms when we consider life’s divine, infinite goodness, and that we Also experience the absurdity and tragedy of death in ‘traumatic, existential terms (trauma here is understood as a deep experience that overwhelms the way our body and heart/soul routinely interacts with reality).

This article suggests that we may conceptualize the Torah mitzvoth considering the purification of death impurity (tummat ha matt) as a divine, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) treatment plan for the human soul so that it can more truly cope with the traumatic experience of losing a divinely given life.

Liberal, secular culture tends to ‘desensitize’ the trauma of death

Modern, liberal secular social culture tends to neutralize, or desensitize, the experience of death. For example, death does not occur in our midst, but in faraway places like institutionalized hospitals. Funeral parlors provide a cash-for-service, ‘designed not to hurt’ burial experience and separation from the deceased. Tradition based family or community practices for comforting the mourners are no longer practiced in detail ,or with a sense of obligation. Rather, relatives create innovative life events (such as a walk amongst mountain hills, or along a wave pounding beach) in order to romantically commemorate the deceased. Similarly, mental health professionals develop techniques or helping people better cope with emotional loss. For example, my secular brothers deeply remember our parents, but I am the only one who regularly conducts a family event on our parent’s yartzheit. In brief, liberal social culture does not ignore death, but does not attempt, or know how, to incorporate death as a significant theme of modern social culture. Liberal social culture tries to put death on ‘the back burner’. Modern liberal, social culture is based on denying the reality of the spiritual and the metaphysical. Rather, liberal social culture emphasizes the material, rational, scientific, and utilitarian Here and Now. It thus lacks the   resources for deeply, existentially coping with the absurdity and tragedy of death.

Rav Soloveitchik teaches how the Torah deeply, existentially copes with Death

Judaism emphasizes that the Torah focuses on the centrality of life and not death. The Torah is “a tree of life that we should hold fast to it”.  The torah is a tree whose fruit-the mitzvot- enable us to live life in the most existentially meaningfully manner.

However, exactly because the divine gift of life is so precious, the divine decree of death is so tragic and traumatic.  Life and death are –existentially- “two sides the same divine coin” (phenomenon). Life is central, but that is what makes the loss of life so ‘traumatically’ significant.

This, the Rav teaches, is the existential backdrop for understanding the laws of the Red Cow-the impurity conveyed by death, ie. by the loss of life. In the time of chazal (Rabbinic times), the laws of impurity of a human corpse played a very significant (although not central) role in Jewish life. Unlike modern, secular culture, death- the loss of human specialness, individuality, and creativity- was not neutralized, desensitized or ‘pushed aside’ in Talmudic Jewish life. Life is central, and this makes the tragedy of the loss of human individuality and creativity also central.   G-d thus gave us the laws of purification following an actual contact with death to help us overcome the trauma of this encounter with death.  These laws of purity enable us to better understand the existential meaning that is laden in this encounter. We can thus colloquially state that these laws of purification from contact with a corpse act as G-d’s post traumatic stress disorder.

The existential meaning of the sprinkling of the mei hattat spring water by the priest

In greater detail, the Rav teaches that for a wide range of ritual impurities   mikvah immersion is sufficient for attaining a status of purification. By his own, individual effort of mikva immersion man can attain a state of purification.  However in the case of impurity caused by touching a human corpse, it is also required that the priest sprinkle ‘mei hattat spring water’ on the impure person.The Rav asks, why in the case of purification from contact with death does man need both mikvah immersion and the  priestly sprinkling of mei hattat. The Rav answers that    that mikvah immersion is an act done by the person himself and ‘symbolizes’ human freedom and creativity. Man has the ability to raise himself to greatness, to take the initiative in coping with life’s challenges, and to reach heights . In contrast, the sprinkling of the ‘mei hattat ‘ by the priest symbolizes that man’s individual  creative efforts are insufficient when coping with trauma caused by death. Man must turn to G-d (in our case,  to  G-d’s representative , the priest) in order to redeem his life from the existential absurdity  and tragedy of death. In order to maturely existentially cope with deathman must combine both human and divine effort, both mikvah immersion and a priestly sprinkling of mei hattat.

We now quote the Rav himself:

“How can man redeem himself from death, how can he cleanse himself from the fright of death, how can he attain taharah (purification) from the defilement by death? Through a double procedure. First, through (mikvah immersion)(that can be understood as) an organized scientific-medical effort to limit death’s power as much as possible. Man (thus, at the first stage) cleanses himself from tumat met the way every tamei person does-all by himself. Second by the priestly sprinkling, by placing our trust in the Almighty.... Only He will heal man from the threat and terror of nihility. Man cannot solve the enigma or mystery of death. Only G-d will elucidate and explain to us this awesome mystery. Death is the great marvel, the unintelligible experience, the ‘hok’ (a ‘beyond rational’ Torah law), the Torah that no one can grasp.

Redeeming the death in our midst

This past week two terrorist murders (of Hallel Ariel and Mickey Mark) again focused our peoples’s attention on the ‘two sided’ coin of life and eath. We deeply felt and mourned the unique, tragic, and irreplaceable loss of two creative, unique Jewish souls. We responded by joining in comforting the family, and rededicating ourselves to fulfilling the tasks of the Torah in the Land of Israel., that Halle and Mickey were not able to complete. May their memory be a blessing, and an impetus to consecrating life.