The Rituals of War: Reflections on Israel and Gaza

Maybe it’s because my wife is a therapist. Or maybe it’s because my favorite religious literature is the writings of Hasidic masters. Both psychology and Hasidic thought aim to understand how our inner thoughts and impulses drive our perceptions of the world. Both recognize that the human soul carries within it many unknowns that create unconscious habits. Without awareness of those instinctual patterns, we tend to repeat ourselves.

Over this past week of warfare between Israel and Hamas, I’ve see how quickly we have all fallen into our standard ritualized responses.

Before elaborating, it’s worth reminding ourselves of how much is at stake. The death toll in Gaza and Israel ticks upwards. Children die. Fear and anger permeate society. Civil unrest and the rule of the mob mark the streets of Israel. Pain rules the day.

While a few brave souls move toward the pain, most of us distance ourselves from it. Pain hurts. It is uncomfortable. We try to avoid it at all cost, even when it can be helpful to our personal or national growth.

There are, of course, many sorts of pain. The horrors of war are first and foremost what occupies us, as they should. But in Israel and the Middle East, everything takes on symbolic meaning. As harsh as it is to state, the sanctity of life is not always the most important factor. Our attachment to our symbolic values helps us fend off pain and allows us a sense of control in what is otherwise a situation of chaos and upheaval. Because it is difficult to sit in a place of pain and loss, we ritualize our values in what is too often a mindless pattern.

What this looks like is easily seen. Whenever violence flares up in Israel, the Palestinians accuse Israel of bearing sole responsibility for the current state of carnage, as do other enemies of the Jewish state.

Within the Jewish world, both in Israel and America, a different set of rituals plays out. One segment of our community will instinctively describe a situation in which Israel is the victim of terror and must defend herself and her citizens. Another equally sizable portion of the community does the very opposite, reducing a complex history to a few talking points. If Israel only did X, Y or Z, or refrained from doing A, B, or C, none of this would have happened. A smaller coterie will attempt to frame the conflict in a complex analysis that seeks to incorporate more information.

Each of these groups is certain that they understand how we got here. Each claims that it knows the real causes, and not responding based on their stance is immoral.

But how do we know this? What sort of analysis has anyone done within a week of the current situation? I’d argue that mostly we have fallen back on ritualized patterns and habits. Some of us are psychologically served when we blame the Palestinians. It absolves us of responsibility. Some of us gain moral benefit when we blame Israel for what happened. We also get to wash our hands of moral responsibility by our high-sounding utterances. Others retreat to moral equivalencies. Yes, Hamas attacked, but it was in response to Israel’s attempts at home evictions (curtailed by Israel’s Supreme Court). By creating moral equivalencies, we feel we are being even-handed, and this also is a form of psychic cleansing.

We all tend to gravitate to one of these tactics, and most of the time, we aren’t even aware that we are running through a script, an unconscious ritual of war.

Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that we are running through a script, an unconscious ritual of war.

Do you remember when Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, which purportedly sparked the Second Intifada? All of the above dynamics played out. For quite a while, the segment of the Jewish world that likes to blame itself found it convenient to hang all guilt on Sharon’s admittedly unwise visit. It took a long time before the Mitchell Report made it clear that the Second Intifada had long been in the planning stages and was merely waiting for the proper pretext. The rituals of introspection and self-blame that we Jews do so well (think of teshuvah and Yom Kippur) occurred in a vacuum of knowledge. Once we knew, few who blamed Sharon for inciting the violence publicly recanted. The ritual is too valuable to relinquish in the face of some inconvenient truths.

Can’t we all, just for a moment, sit in the pain and devastation? Can’t we weep at the loss of life and the terrors of violence? Can’t we wail because we are here again? Isn’t there a way in which admitting the pain into our hearts and minds can actually have a greater political impact than these reflexive rituals? If that sounds too quietist, let’s remember the absolute shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pain of witnessing entire cities vaporized in an instant was so searing that as a consequence, humanity has successfully refrained from nuclear war. Allowing ourselves not to deflect or defend ourselves from that overwhelming grief changed the entire world. In its aftermath, we were able to create international structures meant to reduce the possibility of further nuclear war. If you want to understand Iran and our attempts to curtail her acquisition of nuclear weapons, there’s a clear line leading us back.

Finally, I want to state that I stand unequivocally with Israel. Just as saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean other lives don’t, my belief in the right to a Jewish homeland and Israel’s right to defend itself doesn’t mean Palestinians don’t deserve a state of their own. I stand with Israel because half of my people live there. I stand with Israel because she represents perhaps the greatest miracle in Jewish history. I stand with Israel because my friends live there. I stand with Israel because she has constantly been besieged throughout her short existence, and still she has thrived beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. I stand with Israel because it is where we entered the stage of human history, and it is where we make history today. I stand with Israel not because it is perfect and doesn’t make its share of blunders, but because it is the historic and eternal home of the Jewish people. Ain li eretz acheret.

May Israel know peace, and may we all.


David Kosak is the senior rabbi of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon.

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