In 2015, I crafted an ELI Talk about how Jewish ritual supports healing. It resonated at the time with people who felt stressed out by the demands of everyday life, yet the talk is even more relevant today.
After all, in the last few years, a contentious campaign and election in this country deeply exacerbated social divides—even within families and communities—fraying nerves and relationships. Regardless of your politics, odds are that your newsfeed has been streaming worrying updates about a global refugee crisis and catastrophic climate change, a seeming pandemic of race- and gender-based violence, and alarming attacks that have been reawakening latent fears about xenophobia and antisemitism within the social fabric. And into this mix came Parkland, jolting us to a new recognition of our vulnerability to gun violence and powerful political forces determined to keep things that way.
The news is often traumatic, and it is affecting us on our insides. We recognize that, and we want to know how to deal with that reality. We must learn how to heal from the toll it takes on our nervous system, just to stay up to speed on what is happening in the world. Many of us are thirsty for holistic ways to restore a sense of safety, balance, meaning, relationship, vitality, and hope. What many of us don’t realize is that Jewish tradition, itself, offers just such a remedy.
A cultural legacy that has sustained Jewish resiliency, creativity, and continuity, even through centuries of traumas that have left an imprint on our ways of life, our consciousness, and our genes, Jewish ritual offers a template for imbuing life with meaning and richness, connecting us to the world without burning us out, turning on kindness without risking compassion fatigue, renewing hope without setting us up for depression. And it has done this for millennia in ways that contemporary neuroscientific research is beginning to understand.
Studies in the neuroscience of self-regulation and Interpersonal Neurobiology are revealing the extraordinary internal workings that help us integrate our experience and relationships and recover when trauma dysregulates our lives. These neuroscientific discoveries of the past 20 years corroborate and reverberate with rabbinic intuition of the past 2,000 years.
Like the reprieve that Shabbat offers from stresses of commerce and technology, or the rabbinic urging to utter 100 blessings a day that is Positive Psychology’s ‘attitude of gratitude’, wisdom embedded in Jewish ritual speaks to the underlying structure of human experience.
Evidence has been around for decades that aromatics in chicken soup are indeed helpful for healing from a common cold. Now ancient Jewish wisdom is being affirmed at sophisticated levels in studies, for example, about the value of narrative retelling of a trauma to rewire neural connections and the importance of multisensory and relational learning (seder, anyone?). Brain scans show that children who grow up with a strong spiritual narrative exhibit healthier decision-making. Longitudinal studies have shown that a powerful sense of spirituality correlates with thickening of the neocortex where creative, logical, linguistic and musical processing happens, a possible counter to major depression. (JAMA, 2014)
The discovery of mirror neurons gives credence to the rabbinic insistence that walking through the world with a kind expression matters (Pirkei Avot 1:15). What we understand about the limbic system (the region of the brain that encodes emotion and memory, motivation and evaluation), corroborates the “honey on the Hebrew letters” tradition and countless other “for the kids” customs we have to sweeten the experience of Jewish learning, credited to Rashi in the 11th century and the Sages of the Mishnah, a thousand years prior.
The Jewish calendar itself and rituals like shiva and yizkor can be discerned as ways to help Jews harness the power of a collective nervous system to bolster our resilience in the face of tragedy. And neuroscience now gives us a framework that helps us understand how collective cultural resources such as humor, matzo balls, and Yiddish, nourish social and emotional well-being.
Many people don’t need a scientific lens to validate or value their practice, yet this lens is arguably important in a post-enlightenment, post-Holocaust world where plenty of people find faith traditions naïve at best, and irrational, at worst. People need a reason to trust that Jewish tradition isn’t being touted simply to preserve it, but because it genuinely offers something worthwhile. It’s also helpful when our daily lives are being disrupted by trauma, rattling our nerves as we even contemplate dropping our loved ones off at school, to be able to ground ourselves in a tradition that feels big enough to hold us, our memories, and fears… one that gets us.
While Jewish tradition is too rich to be reduced to a set of scientific conclusions, that’s what’s so beautiful about all of this evidence. It indicates that the whole of Jewish tradition is onto something—greater than the sum of the parts that different studies or self-help techniques will address, one at a time. Jewish tradition, because it can be experienced organically as a way of life, rooted in ancient traditions and shared around the world, nourishes well-being in lots of ways. And its different aspects are mutually reinforcing, in harmony with one another because they are part of a holistic whole. It’s arguably easier to navigate our way through a heritage like this, even if we are picking and choosing, than it is to build one from scratch. And it can work.
This coming Saturday, March 24, many Jews will be nurturing their sense of resiliency and hope and building a better world by joining in the March for our Lives. Others will be nurturing their sense of resilience, hope, and building a better world by practicing ancient Shabbat rituals at home and in community. Some will find ways to do both.
Collectively, we can begin to do profound work by recognizing the power of these two expressions of a tradition of deep caring for a world in need of healing. Draw on powerful wisdom within Jewish tradition can replenish our own wholeness even as we tend to the world’s.