Medicine, Healing and the Jewish Tradition

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

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Nowhere is this distinction more evident than in the area of medicine and health. For God's people, disease will occur not because of natural causes but because we have transgressed against the Torah. Illness comes upon us as a punishment for our wickedness; its cure is effected when we repent of our evil and take up the mitzvot once more. Such a community has no need of physicians; "what place do doctors have in the house of those who perform God's will?"

Unfortunately, Ramban continues, our ancestors did not have sufficient faith to sustain this state of affairs. When they became ill they consulted physicians, preferring natural medicine to the spiritual regimen prescribed by the Torah. For this reason, "because medicine became a habit with them," God annulled Israel's exemption from the laws of nature.

From then on, we have had no recourse but to consult the doctor when  we become sick, for "the door that does not open to mitzvot must open to the physician." Since we have determined to resort to physicians, the Torah grudgingly permits them to practice their art. Yet were we to return and walk fully in God's ways, we should have nothing to do with them.

In Defense of Medicine

Nonetheless, despite these objections, the bulk of Jewish thought assumes a positive and affirming attitude toward the practice of medicine. This is demonstrated most clearly by the many rabbinic scholars, including Nachmanides, who were physicians and who wrote medical literature.

It is expressed, too, by the tradition's. spirited defense of medical practice against the theological criticisms described above. Yes, God is our Healer. But since the Torah does not require us to depend upon miracles, all those passages which seem to condemn the practice of medicine must be interpreted otherwise.

King Asa's sin, we are told, was not that he consulted physicians but that he placed his reliance entirely upon them, forgetting that the physician is God's agent in the treatment of disease and that the patient must pray for healing as well as go see the physician. If King Hezekiah put away a medical text, says Maimonides, the book must have contained forbidden or dangerous lore which the unlearned might misuse; the king could not have been so foolish as to oppose the practice of medicine itself. If the Mishnah states that "the best physician is deserving of hell," this refers either to one who injures or kills his patients as a result of his arrogant refusal to consult with other doctors, or to one who refuses to treat those who cannot afford to pay.

As for Nachmanides' essay on Leviticus 26:11, some authorities reject his theory outright, while others note simply that today we are forbidden to ignore medicine and the rest of the laws of the natural world. Therefore, the Talmud instructs that "one who is in pain should go to the physician" and forbids a scholar from living in a town where no doctor is available.

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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.