Author Archives: Laura Praglin

About Laura Praglin

Laura J. Praglin received her Ph.D. in religion and the human sciences from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She holds master's degrees from Chicago and Yale in religion and social work, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa.

Rabbinic, Medieval, and Early Modern History of Healing

Excerpted with permission from “The Jewish Healing Tradition in Historical Perspective” in The Reconstructionist, Spring, 1999. The original article includes full footnotes and references.

The Mishnah [an early Jewish legal text], Talmud, and [works of] midrash [biblical interpretation] became normative sources for subsequent Jewish views of health and healing. The Talmud, in fact, prohibited Jews from living in a city without a physician. Yet rabbis also debated whether medicine represented inappropriate human intervention in God’s plan. While the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and subsequent talmudic authors did continue to depict God delivering illness as punishment for sin, the finality of such decrees was also challenged in every age.

The Talmud recorded the rabbinical consensus that God himself authorized–in fact required–medicine and healing, construing Exodus 21:19-20, which stipulated that the victim of injury must be “thoroughly healed,” to mean that God had granted the physician permission to cure. It also interpreted the command to restore lost property in Deuteronomy 22:2 to require restoration of another’s body as a form of personal property, thus indicating an obligation to assist another person in life-threatening situations. Rabbis also discerned sanctions to heal, and further grants of authority to physicians, in Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”), as well as in Leviticus 19:16 (“Nor shall you stand by the blood of your fellow”).

Rabbinic Views of the Body

The body, the rabbis taught, was created by God, and thus was both good and a source of intricate wonder. Unlike [gnostics and Greek philosophers], the rabbis did not believe that the body entrapped the soul, nor that it was a primary source of evil or sin. Legitimate worldly and physical pleasures, such as food and sex, were intended by God to be enjoyed rather than withheld.

As a result, [the rabbis] strongly condemned… ascetic[ism]…. While [they] recognized essential constraints to earthly pleasures, “any assumption of further limits on the part of human beings was an act of both pride and ingratitude” (Elliot N. Dorff, Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions, p. 9).

Biblical Healing

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….

jewish healingDeuteronomy 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]….