Rabbinic, Medieval, and Early Modern History of Healing

The evolution of attitudes towards physicians, beliefs connecting illness and sin, prayers for healing, and the use of folk healing traditions.

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Excerpted with permission from "The Jewish Healing Tradition in Historical Perspective" in The Reconstructionist, Spring, 1999. The original article includes full footnotes and references.

The Mishnah [an early Jewish legal text], Talmud, and [works of] midrash [biblical interpretation] became normative sources for subsequent Jewish views of health and healing. The Talmud, in fact, prohibited Jews from living in a city without a physician. Yet rabbis also debated whether medicine represented inappropriate human intervention in God's plan. While the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and subsequent talmudic authors did continue to depict God delivering illness as punishment for sin, the finality of such decrees was also challenged in every age.

The Talmud recorded the rabbinical consensus that God himself authorized--in fact required--medicine and healing, construing Exodus 21:19-20, which stipulated that the victim of injury must be "thoroughly healed," to mean that God had granted the physician permission to cure. It also interpreted the command to restore lost property in Deuteronomy 22:2 to require restoration of another's body as a form of personal property, thus indicating an obligation to assist another person in life-threatening situations. Rabbis also discerned sanctions to heal, and further grants of authority to physicians, in Leviticus 19:18 ("You shall love your neighbor as yourself"), as well as in Leviticus 19:16 ("Nor shall you stand by the blood of your fellow").

doctor bagRabbinic Views of the Body

The body, the rabbis taught, was created by God, and thus was both good and a source of intricate wonder. Unlike [gnostics and Greek philosophers], the rabbis did not believe that the body entrapped the soul, nor that it was a primary source of evil or sin. Legitimate worldly and physical pleasures, such as food and sex, were intended by God to be enjoyed rather than withheld.

As a result, [the rabbis] strongly condemned… ascetic[ism]…. While [they] recognized essential constraints to earthly pleasures, "any assumption of further limits on the part of human beings was an act of both pride and ingratitude" (Elliot N. Dorff, Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions, p. 9).

Rabbinic law thus spelled out legal as well as practical obligations to one's body regarding diet, exercise, sexual relations, hygiene, and sleep. Throughout the ages, rabbis also attempted to illuminate the link between ethical and psychological behavior in the cultivation of mental health. The tractate of the Mishnah comprising Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) focused upon those behaviors and values that fostered a balanced life….

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Laura J. Praglin received her Ph.D. in religion and the human sciences from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She holds master's degrees from Chicago and Yale in religion and social work, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa.