Science and Medicine

"My son the doctor!"- a Jewish mother introduces her child with pride. While we may laugh, this thinking is emblematic of the movement of Jews into the professions in modern times. It also has deep roots in Jewish history. We can trace interest in medicine to King Hezekiah's time (ca. 700 BCE) when a 'Book of Remedies' was popular, and to the era of the Talmud (200-600 CE) when Mar Shmuel, the Talumidic sage was also a well-known physician. In the Middle Ages, a number of rabbinic scholars were also doctors, the best known being the outstanding legalist and philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1137-1204 CE), who served as the personal physician to the Sultan of Egypt.

Moshe ben Maimon is also known as Maimonides or, in Jewish sources, the Rambam. His magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, includes a section (Hilchot Deot 3) with useful suggestions for preserving and enhancing health, along with Torah wisdom and legal codes.

The early history of Jewish medical ideas was recorded in a great 19th-century German work by Julius Preuss, describing how the ancient sources viewed bodily organs and systems, and the use of various types of remedies and healing practices. Yet, from the Bible to Maimonides, there does not seem to be any established systemof medicine or a distinctively Jewish way of approaching the body.

Given this strong concern for physical health in Judaism, why didn't a specific and distinctively Jewish approach to healing develop? The reason goes as far back as King Hezekiah, who hid the Book of Remedies because people were depending on the book rather than on God. He believed that spiritual orientation was essential to Jewish healing. Because of this foundational principle, Talmudic attitudes to medical practice were not entirely positive. A Talumidic sage notes "even good doctors go to Gehinnom." According to this approach, God is the Healer of all flesh, not doctors, yet "permission is given" to physicians and other healers to assist the sick and prescribe remedies. In the view of the Sages, a person might accept almost any current, reliable medical practices-for example, the natural herbal remedies that dominated most pre-modern cultures. The implication, though, was that complete healing demanded attention to one's relationship with God.

Now, in the late 20th century, emphasis on a spiritual approach to healing has resurfaced among a few Jewish health professionals and in some recent books on Jewish spirituality. Some have broken new ground by introducing the power of meditation in healing; others have developed profoundly effective methods of body awareness. Still others have found that acknowledging a world of spirit beyond death could help many of their patients.

Some of the most exciting work invites us to re-examine Jewish prayer as a resource in health and healing. Traditional Judaism always inserted a prayer for healing in every Torah service, and saying Tehillim (Psalms) in time of sickness has been a custom for many centuries. Now, however, some teachers are suggesting specific practices of prayer, movement, and meditation that can enhance physical vitality and spiritual focus at the same time. Insights from Jewish mysticism and Chassidic teachings are central in these new ideas, but classical sources are also used to demonstrate how the body is intended to be the "temple of the soul" and therefore must come to the forefront of our attention.

In particular, the teachings of Rabbi Nachman Of Bretslov have come to the fore in recent works. Rabbi Nachman was very interested in healing and, like many of his Chassidic contemporaries in the early nineteenth century, insisted that body and spirit are intimately interrelated. In his teachings, joy is the foundation of healing; and prayer, song, and dance are part of a total spiritual practice to bring deep and lasting joy into one's life. Rabbi Nachman also focused on the saying of Tehillim, and selected ten psalms to be said for nighttime protection and in times of duress.

The healing path of Jewish tradition is entering upon a re-awakening. Further research in our rich tradition will undoubtedly uncover more treasures. In the near future, we can look forward to a deeper integration of all these insights about healing the body, mind, and soul.


Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D.

Dr. Tamar Frankiel received the Ph.D. in History of Religions from the University of California, both at Berkeley and Riverside, and at Claremont School of Theology. She has authored numerous articles and three academic books. In the 1990's Dr. Frankiel began publishing her work in Jewish studies. The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism, was published in 1990, and reprinted in paperback in 1995. In this book she breaks through the stereotypes of traditional Jewish women and demonstrates the strengths and values of women and the feminine in Jewish tradition. Minding the Body and Soul: Balancing Body, Mind, and Spirit through Traditional Prayer, Movement, and Meditation, co-authored by Dr. Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld, was published in 1997. This book uses the teachings of Jewish mysticism to understand the relationship among body, mind, and soul, and offers a practical approach to prayer that involves the whole person. Her lecture topics include Jewish mysticism and prayer, Jewish history, Torah commentary, and women's issues. She has taught synagogue groups and unaffiliated Jews, university students, women's groups, and Jewish elders, and she was a featured speaker at the 1994 National Conference on Jewish and Contemporary Law. Dr. Frankiel writes and teaches in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Hershel and five children.