I recently participated in an interfaith meeting on the subject of healing, and it was fascinating to see the approach of different religions to illness. Is illness a punishment from God? If not a punishment, does it reflect God's will in some way? What is the role of religion in the process of healing?
Although within Judaism there are many different approaches to these questions, I believe that the general consensus is that God is the great healer - God is referred to in our liturgy as Rofeh Holim - healer of the sick - rofeh being the same word as "doctor." This is based upon the verse "I the Lord am your healer" - rofecha (Exodus 15:26). The work of healing, however, is given into the hands of the human doctor who serves as God's messenger.
There are certain instances in the Bible in which illness is seen as decreed by God - for example, Miriam's skin disease is specifically a punishment from God for her actions - and therefore only God can heal her. Moses utters a brief prayer - God please, heal her please (Numbers 12:10-13). Nevertheless there seems to be no general belief that all illness is a punishment or a sign of sin. This is seen clearly in the way in which skin diseases - sometimes erroneously called leprosy - are treated in the Book of Leviticus (see chapters 13-15).
The priest there is given a very specific task: to look at the symptoms and decide if the person has the disease and therefore must be isolated to prevent its spread. Other than that the priest does nothing - no sacrifices, no spells, not even a prayer. Only when the priest discerns that the disease has passed does he bring sacrifices on behalf of the person to signal that the afflicted one may now return to the community. Thus the Torah really severs the tie between illness and punishment and denies the priest a role in healing. That is the role of the physician.
From a verse in the Torah, the Sages learned that permission is given to the doctor to heal illness. That was their interpretation of the last words of Exodus 21:19 - v'rapo y'rapeh - "he has surely healed him" (see Baba Kama 85a). One is not to consider illness a punishment that must not be interfered with, something that only God can eliminate. The Talmud goes so far as to rule that one must not live in a place where there is no physician (Sanhedrin 17b). It is this idea that has dominated Jewish thinking on healing and that may explain the prominent role that Jews have had in the medical profession for more than a thousand years. The physician is performing God's will in healing the sick.
The rabbis have long taught that humans are partners with God in the work of creation. God leaves something to us. In creating the world, God gave us, as it were, an unfinished work that requires our creativity. That is true in healing as well. A physician is God's partner in bringing healing - and God is the physician's partner in this work as well.
We pray to God for healing, as we pray to God for many things that require human assistance. The central prayer of Judaism - the Amida - includes a special paragraph for healing - "Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed." Based upon a verse from Jeremiah 17:14, this may originally have referred to healing of spiritual rather than physical malaise, but over the centuries it has come to represent physical illness as well. When reciting that paragraph, one may also insert a personal prayer for an individual who is ill. There is also a prayer recited at services when the Torah is being read in which we pray for healing.
Among the acts of kindness that Judaism urges us to perform, bikur holim - visiting the sick - plays a prominent role. It is even said that a visit takes a way 1/60th of the illness - thus recognizing that the mental attitude of the patient is important in the act of physical healing.
Judaism sees a clear connection between the physical (body) and the spiritual (soul). One can affect the other, which may explain some of the more mystical healing practices. The rabbis had an interesting parable about these two aspects of the human being. A king had a garden and two guards - one blind, the other lame. When fruits went missing, he called the guards and one said, I am blind, so how could I see to steal? The other said, I am lame, so how could I climb the trees? The wise king said, let the blind man sit on the shoulders of the lame, that way the two can do anything. The parable is told about the Day of Judgment when - according to our tradition - both body and spirit are judged, but the lesson in clear. Body and soul, the physical and the spiritual or mental parts of the human being, are two parts of the same creature, and the whole person must be considered in the process of healing.
To sum up: Judaism is very pragmatic. It views healing as a process that comes from God and is encouraged by God. Much in the world needs perfecting, not least the elimination of illness. That is godly work - not against God's will but fulfilling it. Therefore we pray, but we also turn to the physician, for God has given the physician permission to heal and works through the hands of the skilled physician.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.