What is Jewish Healing?

Meir Sendor

From Sh’ma: a journal of Jewish Responsibility October 3, 1997
Reprinted with Permission

Healing remains one of the genuine mysteries of our daily lives. Real healing from physical or emotional illness is a multidimensional process, and new medical fields such as psychoneuroendoimmunology indicate a growing modern awareness of the intricate interrelationship between mind and body in illness and health. The Jewish approach to healing is traditionally one that recognizes this mystery in all its complexity.

On the one hand, healing is a divine preserve, one of the areas of life in which we can really feel the hand of God at work. Prophets such a Elijah and Elisha used healing to demonstrate God’s power. On the other hand, healing is a mitzvah, and the efforts of health care professionals to help us deal with illness is considered to be a realm of high human endeavor. This is not a contradiction, but a genuine and inspiring partnership between God and us. While you can find extreme fideist positions in the Jewish theology of healing, such as R. Aha (in the tractate Berakhot 60a), or Nahmanides (in his Torah Commentary Leviticus 26:11), for whom anything less than complete reliance on God for healing through prayer alone is a grudging compromise, by far the overwhelming consensus of Jewish thought endorses a more proactive position that sees divine and human action as fully integrated.

The normative Jewish view is expressed in Ben Sira, ch. 38: “From God, the physician gets wisdom… God brings forth medicines from the earth… By them, the physician soothes pain and the pharmacist makes a remedy.” God’s role in healing is intimately immanent, and we are encouraged to make therapeutic use of all the resources with which He has endowed creation.

Feeling God’s Pain

The Torah theology of healing, expressed in rabbinic literature goes even further. God not only guides the mind of the physician and the hand of the surgeon, but the body and soul of the patient as well. R. Meir, in a radical statement in tractate Sanhedrin 46a says, “When a person is in pain, what does the divine Presence say? My head aches. My arm aches.” R. Meir’s moving expression of the most interior divine empathy for our pain is understood by R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim (2:11), as the basis for a profound Torah approach to our search for healing. He says that the turning point in healing is when we realize God’s pain over our illness is even greater than our own. The fact that one of God’s precious, beloved creatures is suffering, in a world that God meant to be perfect, is a source of divine agony, as it were. When a person ceases to feel pain over their own suffering, because of their bitterness over God’s pain on their behalf, this bitterness itself is the basis for the dissolution of their own suffering.

This shift of perspective, projecting our care and concern onto God, and allowing ourselves to be cared for by God, is the very essence of Jewish healing. The experience of health is actually a non-experience. We feel best when we are totally unself-conscious about ourselves, not obsessing about our physical or emotional sensations at all, and fully projected out toward the word. The experience of illness tends to be solipsistic, self-absorbed, focused on our own pain in a tight and narrowing circle of attention, and this limits our options for change. This self- absorption can even lead to exacerbating the condition through neurotic and injurious self-testing, pain recycling, stress and other self-defeating reactions. The Jewish approach to healing involves a self-transcendence, a shift of concern to God, yet God as feeling our pain more intimately than we do, closer to us than we are to ourselves. In this way, we begin the process of re-establishing the experience of health.

Through this process, we open our hearts, minds and souls to really receive the blessings of healing that are already there for us in abundance, that facilitate healing. We learn, with patience and trust, to enhance the subtle and supple powers of our immune systems. We learn to appreciate and accept the ways in which our physical and social environments provide support that nourishes, nurtures and sustains us. We also prepare ourselves to be ready to find the often uncanny routes of healing that God provides for us: that just the right resource comes our way when we most need it.

R. Hayyim’s approach also models for us the Jewish ideal of the caregiver: that we recognize that our compassion for those who need healing is a dimension of God’s own infinite compassion for us all.

Additional articles on Jewish healing may be found in the Sh’ma area of Jewish Community On-Line on America On Line. Type in keyword “jewishnews” and look for Sh’ma.

Rabbi Dr. Meir Sendor is spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Sharon, and teaches Jewish Mysticism, Philosophy and Medicine at Brandeis University.

For more information about this article, or for additional copies call CLAL at 212-779-3300.