West Point, Judaism, and the Languages of Faith

Posted on Dec 01, 2011

My posting about the visit I made to West Point in early November garnered a lot of response—and two comments in particular got me thinking more about the points I had raised.

The first, from Kenneth Katz, made the valid point that “there is in fact plenty of interaction between civilians and the military in our country these days, just not in the social and professional circles you inhabit.” True. As it happens, the Pew Research Center came out with a report on November 23 entitled, “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections.” It turns out that “a smaller share of Americans currently serve in the US Armed Forces than at any point since the peace-time era” between the world wars, meaning that “the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant.” What is more, “Americans who have family connections to the military have different views from those who don’t on a range of topics related to patriotism, the military and national security.” My cousin served, and was wounded, in Vietnam. That may be why I am sensitized to the gap to which I pointed in the blog post and which Pew probed in its study. I don’t know what it will take to bridge the gap—but awareness is a start. Look for programming and curriculum at JTS along the lines of the useful ideas suggested on this blog in the last couple weeks.

The second comment that grabbed my attention was the post by Gary Goldberg, a physician working in the polytrauma rehab program of the VA. He talked about the long-term spiritual and psychological impact of war and guiding recovery from war-related injuries beyond physical wounding, “as much a spiritual concern as a medical one.” Goldberg concludes with a direct challenge to those of us who head religious institutions and training programs: we “need to be deeply sensitized to these important needs” so as to motivate and prepare individuals who will address them. By chance, I read his comment while at Harvard, where I had spent a fascinating day talking to various university faculty and administrators about the teaching of religion at Harvard—and, by extension, elsewhere. One of our conversation partners, a noted physician-anthropologist, eloquently made the point that issues of purpose in life, meaning, spirit, soul, find their way into the medical school and hospital primarily when varieties of what we called “religionists” bring it through the door. What he was saying went beyond the need for hospital chaplains and intellectual cross-pollination. He was getting at something broader: the trouble many people in our society have in discussing religious and spiritual matters outside of church or synagogue, in a way that crosses the so-called “religious-secular” divide. I am not a big fan of that divide. I think it misrepresents the nature of human beings, who search, mourn, go deep, ward off death, treasure moments of insight often linked to pain or crisis, find courage to love and believe, et cetera, et cetera—all part of a world I would not call “secular” or limit to “religion.”

That’s what I found so appealing about the military chaplaincy, in part: the dedication to “being present” for soldiers of all faiths or none, serving those who serve without regard to denomination or creed, finding a language that can be heard by those who need to hear it, doing it sensitively—skills that are connected to those that Gary Goldberg urges us to employ. I think those of us who train religious leaders have a responsibility to help them draw on their learning, passion, and care for broader communities than the synagogues or organizations or schools that employ them. Judaism has something to say to the world, and to learn from it. “The process of rehabilitation and re-integration” that wounded veterans need is cognate with other wounds that need healing. It may begin with a language of faith that reaches beyond what we normally associate with “faith” and “religion”—even while reaching deep into resources that faith and religion make uniquely available.