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FBI and the Soul

December 11, 2018 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Rabbi Cary Friedman helps cops survive the rigors of America’s most stressful occupation.

Rabbi Cary Friedman has had very unique career. With a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University, rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, and a second-degree black belt, Cary’s pioneering success includes: rabbi at Duke University, chaplain at a federal prison, author of books on marriage, world expert on the Batman, and – most recently – "spirituality expert" to the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. spoke with Cary from his home in New Jersey. Let's start with your childhood obsession: Batman. How did that all come about?

Cary: My mother is a Holocaust survivor. When she was eight years old in Vilna, and word came that the Nazis were approaching, the non-Jewish neighbors came rushing over to the house. Though our families had lived side-by-side for generations, my mother witnessed them murder her aunts, uncles, and cousins.

My mother managed to escape and hide for five years in a potato cellar (payback for my grandfather saving someone in that family from drowning). When I was growing up in Connecticut, we had a surrogate extended family composed of survivors. At holiday meals, people would take turns sharing harrowing tales of what they’d endured and how they narrowly escaped death. I knew about raw evil from an early age.

Through Batman, 8-year-old Cary wrestled with the Holocaust.

 Had I tried to process that directly, I probably would have lost my mind. So I latched onto the story of another 8-year-old child – Bruce Wayne, who would go on to become the Batman – whose parents were murdered in front of his own eyes.

With the Batman, I could relate to my mom's experience from a safe psychological distance. The classic Batman stories of my youth dealt with themes like “why bad things happen to good people” and “how does one respond to and triumph over tragedy.” This was our family's story, too, but told to me – safely – through fictional stories made up of images composed of colored dots of ink on a page.

Cary’s mother in Vilna, Lithuania, circa 1935

Cary’s mother in Vilna, Lithuania, circa 1935. What did Bruce Wayne teach you about life after tragedy?

Cary: Bruce Wayne inherited great wealth and could have spent his entire life wallowing in distractions or drowning in self-pity, complaining about the lousy hand he’d been dealt. Instead he used tragedy as a springboard to accomplish good. Bruce swore at his parents’ graveside to perpetuate their legacy of altruism, dedicating his life to ensuring that no one would suffer as he had. Similarly, my mother spent her childhood years fighting for survival, then went on to create a family and life filled, tirelessly, with meaning, compassion, and dedication to justice. Your book, Wisdom from the Batcave, connects Batman comics to Jewish themes. Is this real or imagined?

Cary: The original creators of Batman – Bob Kane and Bill Finger – were Jewish. I detected remarkable parallels where the Batman mythology touches on authentic Torah ideals. Yet I wondered: Am I pounding pieces into a puzzle? Later I had the opportunity to meet Jerry Robinson, the original creator of the characters Robin and The Joker, plus other key features of the Batman mythology. He read Wisdom from the Batcave and said: "They [Kane and Finger] would have liked this book; they spoke of Batman as a classic moral hero."

Most important was the opinion of my biggest rabbinical influence, Rabbi Avigdor Miller. He was known to be uncompromising about secular culture. One year at Rabbi Miller’s synagogue, the person in charge of making the children's treat-bags for Simchat Torah included Batman comic books. When this was questioned, Rabbi Miller examined the comics and approved of how they promote Torah values such as the relentless struggle against evil. (This was in the 1950s when comic books were different than they are today.) Rabbi Miller also noted how the heroes disguise their true identities, avoiding egotistical accolades. I consider that a good endorsement.

Cary’s childhood collection of Batman memorabilia

Cary’s childhood collection of Batman memorabilia. In the background is a copy of his book, Wisdom from the Batcave. How did your involvement in the field of law enforcement come about?

Cary: I was giving a public talk and the chief of the FBI's Behavior Science Unit happened to be there. He came up to me afterwards and remarked, "That was very substantive, inspirational, and engaging." He told me that the FBI’s National Academy teaches the mechanics of "how" to do the job – how to conduct a forensic investigation, how to handcuff and engage in defensive tactics, but they also need to address the "why" of law enforcement – the notions of idealism and integrity. A week later I visited the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia and things took off from there.

Rabbi Friedman is a consultant
at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia

Rabbi Friedman is a consultant at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Where does spirituality fit in with law enforcement?

Cary: In the course of speaking with hundreds of cops, I realized that behind the tough exterior – what is called "command presence" – is often a great idealism, integrity, and spiritual majesty.

For truly conscientious officers, spirituality is the central dimension, the very reason they chose this career. Policemen long “to protect and serve," to live for something larger than themselves, to be heroic in the story of their lives. That is an expression of the soul.

Many cops have told me, "I thought about entering the clergy, but for some reason or other I couldn’t, so I became a cop." It’s a different expression of the spiritual instinct. There are uncanny parallels between clergy and law enforcement: they protect and serve, set an example, enforce laws, answer to a higher authority, etc. I know of many families that produce both cops and clergy.

Most cops are extraordinarily noble and want to make a difference in the world. They literally put their lives on the line for these ideals.

Most cops are extraordinarily noble, giants of the human spirit who want to make a difference in the world. They literally put their lives on the line for these ideals. They tell me: "Thank you for acknowledging that. I couldn't articulate it myself, but that's me!" Law enforcement is considered the most stressful occupation in America, with high incidence of domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide. What is that attributed to?

Cary: When police officers begin their career, their "spirituality account" is full. They have a moral value system, regard for people, and confidence in their abilities. Then, in the course of their job, they spend about 95% of their time with 5% of the population – the worst elements of society. Cops are exposed to physical danger, senseless violence and tragedy, and vilification by the public and media. As first responders on the scene, they create that thin blue line between chaos and the civil society we're trying to build. Even the most mundane, uneventful day contains staggering depletions from the spirituality account.

After a few years in the field, most officers experience a crisis. They see "reputable" people committing heinous acts and it shakes their faith in humanity. They question the choice of such a stressful, painful, demanding career. They feel burned out. The officers most at risk are the most conscientious, who throw themselves into the job, who have the most integrity, who feel deeply and care sincerely – but who might lack the spiritual tools to replenish that idealism. Clarity and resolve is replaced by doubt, anger, depression, and disillusionment. And the better they perform their job, the more they are exposed to dark forces. The job eats them up, inch by inch.

Cops have many resources to deal with physical and mental well-being, but not the spiritual side. Cops are constantly making withdrawals from their spirituality account. If this reservoir of spirituality goes down to zero – and even to overdraft and bankruptcy – they reach spiritual anguish and exhaustion. If they don't identify the root cause, they'll seek solutions elsewhere – rampant pursuit of materialism, or engaging in self-destructive behaviors to self-medicate and numb the pain. As Nietzsche said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

Cary Friedman practices Gung Fu
with his son, Akiva

Cary Friedman practices Gung Fu with his son, Akiva, who followed his father’s footsteps and trained in many of Batman’s special skills. What is your approach to counteracting this?

Cary: My job is to give these cops "tools for intentional spirituality" – techniques to make deposits into their spirituality account. Properly equipped, an officer has an excellent chance of having a long, healthy, successful career. I have many emails and letters from officers saying that my talks saved them from “eating their gun,” a euphemism for suicide. As Associate Director of the Law Enforcement Survival Institute, you work alongside tough, seasoned trainers – including a Navy Seals' psychologist – who teach mental toughness and emotional resilience. How does your work complement this?

Cary: When a cop encounters tragedy or raw human evil, "emotional survival" means developing coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional after-effects of the traumatic encounter. I teach them "spiritual survival": to understand “why” go back to work the next day; why remain in a career that requires them to put themselves into those stressful situations day after day; and why bring their uncompromised ethical A-Game to the job every day.

Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, observed that those who have a strong "why" can bear almost any "how." We can’t survive long-term without meaning in our lives, without some moral cause or purpose bigger than ourselves. A society or individual that lives for no purpose other than the pursuit of wealth and pleasure cannot sustain the soul that craves meaning and purpose.

I tell cops: Remind yourself every day why you do what you do. A simple tool might be to keep a diary, a daily account of benevolent acts and the people you've helped. Measure your effectiveness and value other than by the traditional “number of arrests made.”

Cary's Book: Spiritual Survival How does being an observant Jew affect your work?

Cary: I’m impressed by how open-minded and respectful most people with whom I interact are. Sometimes, when I first enter a police training room, some may find my kippah jarring, even off-putting. I mention early on that my mother is a Holocaust survivor who remembers a very different kind of police officer in her native country, and is grateful to this wonderful country and the decent men and women who enforce its laws. I tell them that, as a member of the Jewish community that enjoys the benevolence of the USA, I wish to express my gratitude and offer them something practical to help them in their careers. The acknowledgement of their nobility and expression of gratitude – both sincerely given and well-deserved – is meaningful to my audiences. Police officers are government employees. How do you finesse the American requirement of “separation of church and state”?

Cary: I’m careful to avoid anything that even remotely smacks of religion. You can talk about values and spirituality – just not religion – without violating the separation of church and state. I teach them to navigate by their “North Star" – a fixed source of absolute ethical values, something higher than and external to themselves. For many cops, their commitment to unwavering ethical behavior stems from a belief in God or a religious system, while others believe in truth, or justice, or the sanctity of life. Ultimately I help them reaffirm their connection to their spiritual selves, and real spirituality translates into consistent moral conduct in the performance of their police roles.

Cary Friedman and his mother

Cary Friedman and his mother, who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a potato cellar for five years.

Although I have spent my life exploring spiritual living through my commitment to Torah, I never share overt Torah ideas. Instead, I distill those ideas into concepts and practices that are genuinely spiritual rather than religious. So I can respect the separation of church and state even while providing substantive, restorative insights and techniques.

Occasionally, an officer I’ve taught will email me outside of the training context and persistently inquire about the source of my values. In those cases, I direct them to!

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