Religion has rightly been criticized for serving as a justification for oppression, but by the same measure it can be the vehicle for truth, justice, and good in the world.
The rabbis taught, “Asur lihitrapot b’divrei Torah”—it is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah (Shevuos 15b). The peshat (literal reading) here is that we should not play with magic and think that reciting a biblical verse over a wound will heal it. That is not the way G-d or nature works. At the same time, the rabbis are also teaching a deep lesson about the role of religion in the world. Pray and study can be very transformative and therapeutic. But ideally, we cannot heal people or the world with only religious words and rituals. Rather, pastorally, we must not just read and quote but inspire and connect. And we must take the lessons of these words and rituals out into the world and physically change it. Prayer must be accompanied by action, study by application, blessing by manifestation, and potential by actualization.
Karl Marx offered the most notable critique of religion’s corrupting force. To Marx, religion was created by men (“Man makes religion, religion does not make man”) to bolster the authority of rulers over their subjects; for the poor, religion offers the false perception that shared religion is the greatest unifying thing, and that there is solace in a world without hope: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the people.” To Marx, religion created a false world in which people were prevented from achieving their full potential and happiness, and humanity would not advance without ridding itself of religion: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”
The use of the spurious “Divine Right of Kings” (that monarchs were literally G-d’s representative on Earth and could do no wrong) was used by the kings of France and tsars of Russia to rationalize their mistreatment of the poor and terrorizing of dissenters of all kinds. Eventually, both systems were overthrown in brutal revolutions that rejected the established religion, spanning countless years of war and costing millions of lives.
The lesson of Marx and the revolutions of the last few centuries is that religion should challenge us to be better and not just offer us nostalgic satisfaction and spiritual comfort. The Torah cannot allow us to follow a religion that is merely an “opiate of the masses.”
Torah does not heal. It is the medicine book and Doctor’s ledger but not the actual medicine or Doctor. Even pagans in the ancient world often understood that healing could not be done through religious rite. The staff of Aesculapius image (a snake-like serpent wrapped around a staff), which is still the symbol of the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and many other physician groups around the world, originated thousands of years ago. It probably represents an ancient medical practice of extracting parasites from sick people, in which an incision was made in the skin, drawing the parasite to the surface, whereupon the healer turned a stick to extract the parasite by wrapping it around the staff. In eastern religions, meditation and other physical and mental exercises (yoga is one example) are often used to heal, using a theory of balance; we know that blood pressure and the autonomic system can be normalized with regularized breathing. However, even these techniques cannot treat illnesses that may require surgery or other serious treatments. We must do the work to heal, and the Torah will provide us – sometimes clearly, sometimes opaquely – with the inspiration and wisdom on how to do it.
The Rabbis (Sanhedrin 4:5) asked a profound question: “Why was the human race created from the offspring of one single person.” Three distinct and important answers were given:
- To teach that someone who saves a single life has saved the whole world (life has infinite value)
- For the sake of peace, so that no one should be able to say, “My father was more important than your father” (all are equal)
- So that every person should think that “For my sake the world was created” (all are unique)
The rabbis teach that we must embrace the reality that all have infinite dignity, are equal, and are unique. This means that we must be committed to going out to heal others and the world, that we must cherish each human being with love and care. We cannot allow religion to be used as a means to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. Words of Torah are healing and sometimes the most appropriate thing to share with another. However, our broader life responsibilities to others require our full self, and our mission as followers of the Torah demands nothing less.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”