Guarding Our Humanity–Even In a Time of War

In his classical work on masculine spirituality, Iron John, Robert Bly notes how our contemporary society no longer provides the necessary rituals to help reintegrate warriors after a war. Unlike the ancient societies, which presented a series of complex rituals to help their soldiers make a transition to their former lives, today’s warriors have no means of making such a psychological transition to a normal life.[1]

In some cultures, a group of women would bare their breasts at the soldier to awaken their sense of compassion. Ritual washings in a pool of warm water often served to symbolize the renewal of the person; it helped the soldier get in touch with his essential humanity.  But for today’s soldiers, there are no parades honoring the soldiers’ return from the battlefront. Nor do beautiful maidens throw golden applies to the soldiers as they celebrate their return.

Is it any wonder, argues Bly, why so many Vietnam war veterans committed suicide after they arrived home? Is it any wonder why so many veterans became homeless? Bly’s arguments speak with a great deal of force. I have personally worked with the traumatized soldiers who return, who often complain about the inner demons they face.

When we study the rituals of war in the Torah, we also discover the purification rites that enabled individuals who became spiritually and ceremonially defiled in battle, and how they eventually became purified and spiritually renewed (cf. Num. 19 ff.). Interestingly, even before going to the battlefield, soldiers had to donate half shekel. The biblical writer notes, “When you take a census of the Israelites who are to be registered, each one, as he is enrolled, shall give the LORD a forfeit for his life, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered” (Exod. 30:12).

The verse suggests that a soul needs atonement whenever one goes out to war. Every enemy soldier has a family and wears many hats other than that of a soldier. The ritual of the half shekel reminded soldiers that killing a human being is wrong unless one is doing so in self-defense. Reasons for such a rite are obvious. War brutalizes a people. Once one sees an enemy soldier as an enemy, killing becomes permitted.

But how can the act of killing not brutalize a soul–especially a sensitive soul? Even the Nazis realized that they could not command their soldiers to kill Jews as fellow human beings; but they could command them to kill the Jews “because they were not human–but were like vermin.” Continue reading “Guarding Our Humanity–Even In a Time of War”