Jewish Health & Healing Practices
Jewish communities from early on accorded high status to the physician, and many leading rabbis and scholars--from the talmudic period through the Middle Ages and beyond--were physicians as well, including Maimonides. Also, in certain societies, particularly Europe in the Middle Ages and later, medicine was one of the few professions open to Jews.
The prominence of Jews as medical practitioners, researchers and teachers has continued into our time. 28% of the Nobel Prize winners for medicine have been Jewish (and 40% of the American winners).
The physician's duty to heal is paralleled by the general duty to tend to one's own health. The Talmud forbids one to live in a city where there is no physician (BT Sanhedrin 17b). One is not entitled to refuse medical treatment, except for a legitimate reason, and, following this logically, Judaism does not countenance suicide or permit one to help another commit suicide. People are not fully autonomous over their bodies and lives, but receive them from God and hold them in trust. However, Jewish scholars long ago distinguished between acts which shorten a person's life and those which prevent the unnecessary delay of death. The latter are permitted.
There are limits, of course. Judaism does not sanction treatments, medicines or procedures that are overly experimental or speculative. There must be a reasonable chance of success or benefit. Similarly, a Jew is not allowed to undertake activities which clearly endanger health. The use of drugs, for example, is permitted in order to improve health or reduce pain; one is not required to suffer needlessly. However, the teachings of most authorities would prohibit the use of drugs taken for the purpose of providing a “high” or a mind-altering experience, because of the dangers involved to the user and others.
Judaism’s attitude towards a substance seems to be affected by when its danger was first perceived. The biblical references to alcohol (Noah’s intoxication, Genesis 9:21; praise for the Nazirite who abstains from alcohol, Numbers 6:3-4) suggest an early awareness of its danger. (Note, however Psalm 104:15: “wine gladdens a person’s heart.”)
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