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
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
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
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.