Faith Healing

Curing with supernatural powers is viewed with skepticism in Judaism.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Faith healing is the cure of disease by methods that invoke religious belief either as a complement to natural methods or as a substitute for them. Judaism is obviously opposed to this kind of healing where it belongs to the practices and beliefs of another religion: in the name of Jesus, for example, or as part of a Christian service. The question of the legitimacy of recourse to faith-healing from the Jewish point of view arises where this is undertaken in the name of God.

 

Traditionally, Judaism has viewed with suspicion supposedly supernatural intervention to cure human ills because this might be associated with magic and superstition. Nor does Judaism usually countenance the belief, as in the Christian Science movement, that all disease is in the mind and is really an illusion that can be addressed by exposing its illusory nature. The rival Jewish movement of Jewish Science, founded by Morris Lieberman in 1922, has found very few adherents among Jews.

faith healingThere is nevertheless recognition in some of the classical Jewish sources that the mind has an influence on bodily heath. It is tempting, for instance, to understand the Talmudic accounts of certain sages taking the hand of a sick person and raising him from his sickbed (Berakhot 5b) as examples of faith healing, although the motif in these tales appears rather to be the power of the saint to work miracles. Many of the Hasidic masters were claimed by their followers to possess supernatural powers of healing--one of the reasons why the doctors were opposed to Hasidism.

Nowadays, when many diseases are seen by doctors themselves in psychosomatic terms, a distinction is often drawn between rabbis and others co-operating with doctors to apply the healing powers of faith as an aid to recovery, and faith-healing as a cult.

This kind of distinction is behind the tale told of the Hasidic master, Simhah Bunem of Pzhysha (d. 1827). This master, who suffered severely from bad eyesight, was once advised, after the doctors had declared they could do nothing to help him, to consult a faith healer. The master is said to have retorted that the Torah advises the Jew to consult doctors who heal by natural means. But where the healer invokes faith it is wrong to go to a healer who does not accept Judaism. Instead, the sick person should have resort to a Jewish saint or master of prayer to pray that he be healed.

Similarly, the Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis, after discussing, in 1927, the question of "spiritual healing," issued a report reaffirming belief in the healing powers of the synagogue but disapproving of cults that deny reality to all human ailments.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.