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Excerpted with permission from “The Jewish Healing Tradition in Historical Perspective” in The Reconstructionist, Spring, 1999. The original article includes full footnotes and references.
Judaism’s relation to the themes of healing and curing, and to sickness and health, may be found throughout biblical sources and in later textual and folk interpretations of those sources. Ancient Israel’s covenantal relationship affirmed God alone as healer, source of both health and illness, and restorer of body and spirit. Sickness, therefore, was viewed as a divinely ordained form of individual or collective punishment, rather than attributed, as in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite cultures, to independent, demonic forces. God’s healing, moreover, was linked to individual and communal forgiveness, restoration, renewal, reward, and deliverance from destruction.
Healing in the Bible
The root word r-p-‘, the basis of the Hebrew word for healing and healer, was closely related both to spiritual and physical redemption and to wholeness. In Genesis, God heard the plea of Abraham and healed Abimelech; God promised to keep Israel healthy if she kept the commandments….
Deuteronomy 24:8-9 and Numbers 12 recall Moses’ prayers for Miriam’s healing, and in the Song of Moses, God states: “I deal death and give life; I wounded and I will heal: None can deliver from My hand” (Deut. 32:39). Similar statements appear throughout the Hebrew Bible….
The prophetic voices in Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah emphasized the healing aspects inherent in turning back to God…. Ezekiel and Zechariah described God as caretaker of the sick, the weak, and the lost, while rebuking Israel for not aiding God with such efforts on behalf of the needy…. Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah invoked God’s healing powers through signs, fasting, prayer, and various healing remedies….
Physicians as Magicians
The Hebrew Bible, in fact, generally possessed a negative attitude toward physicians, given their perceived link to sorcery and incantations. The practice of such magical or faith healing was, moreover, consistently denounced in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Consulting exorcists in the search for cure constituted grounds for exile from the community or death; the use of magic or incantations was considered an “abomination to the Lord….” Second Chronicles, for example, mocked foreign doctors’ treatments as idolatrous. King Asa of Judah “did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians,” and as punishment, the Chronicler inferred, he soon died (2 Chron. 16:12). Magical healing practices were condemned as well by the prophets and later in the Mishnah [an early Jewish legal text]….
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