Medicine, Healing and the Jewish Tradition

Despite early theological objections, Jewish law views the practice of medicine as a mitzvah.

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Reprinted with permission from the author's book Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, published by the UAHC Press (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), 2001.

The practice of medicine is a mitzvah, a fundamental religious obligation incumbent upon the Jewish people.

While this statement might strike us as obvious and unexceptional, the attitude it conveys is far from unanimous in Jewish tradition. The Torah never explicitly commands us to practice medicine, and some biblical passages are highly critical of physicians and those who resort to them. This negative attitude stems, in large part, from the fact that for much of its history, medical "science" was not far removed from the arts of black magic, which the Bible condemns in no uncertain terms.


Theological Objections to the Practice of Medicine

Yet there are weighty theological objections to medicine as well, and these have to do with the Bible's conception of God as Creator of the universe and therefore the Source of both sickness and health. If God is the cause of all that happens to us, it stands to reason that illness is a sign of divine displeasure, a punishment for our misdeeds. And if such is the case, the proper response to illness is not medicine but prayer and repentance. Do we not read that "I am Adonai, your healer" (Exodus 15:26)? Does this verse not teach us that all healing belongs to God? If so, then to employ the services of a physician in search of a natural cure for disease betrays a lack of faith in the mercy of Heaven.

Thus, the biblical author criticizes King Asa of Judah because "in his illness he sought not God but rather physicians" (II Chronicles 16:12). The Talmud contains statements in a similar vein. According to one legend, King Hezekiah wins praise for hiding away a medical book as a means of encouraging the people to turn to God, and not to physicians, for healing. Elsewhere, the Talmud suggests that human beings committed a serious error when they began to practice medicine; "they should instead have learned to seek God's mercy." Perhaps this is what the Mishnah has in mind when it declares in no uncertain terms that "the best physician is deserving of hell."

This point of view finds a powerful expression in the commentary of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (13th-century Spain), known as Nachmanides or Ramban, to Leviticus 26:11. God, Ramban tells us, offers us an existence entirely distinct from that which is the lot of all other peoples, whose lives are governed by the normal workings of nature. Israel, by contrast, is to receive blessings and suffer curses as a direct result of its success or failure in keeping God's covenant.

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Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., is associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.