You probably know the old Jewish joke about the proud mother introducing her two baby children: my son the doctor and my son the lawyer. And even though the times have changed the respect for Jewish doctors remains unchanged. As for lawyers we’re probably more ambivalent, despite the fact that thanks to Talmudic tradition we’ve been called a nation of lawyers.
Truth is, we Jews have a long history of respect for both law and medicine and their practitioners. Looking at medicine, our connection to healing is rooted in our theology and our history. Unlike some religions, Judaism never saw medical treatment as meddling with God’s creation but as a positive expression of God’s will. The Torah directs us – “And you shall take very good care of yourselves “(Deuteronomy 4:15) and Maimonides famous philosopher and physician, back in the 12th century, declared in one of his many writings on medicine: “One is obliged to refrain from all things that impair the body and adopt those elements that strengthen it.”( Mishna Torah). In other words God wants us to strive be healthy and well. In fact, He grieves when we are ill even if this is the way of the world made by Him. I like to think that God is as affronted by cancer as we are, that He rejoices whenever one is healed or a researcher discovers a new cure.
This past week at Caulfield Shule we had the opportunity to hear from a group of distinguished doctors about men’s health. Many of the comments were relevant to both men and women such as the need for regular exercise and a healthy, balanced diet. The advice of Maimonides was, for example, echoed by Dr Leon Massage when he addressed the obesity epidemic; Maimon counsels that one should eat only until one’s stomach is three quarters full. The emphasis on good eating and weight control today is not simply on what one eats but on how much one eats even of healthy foods; as Dr Leon suggests it’s about ‘portion control‘. The book of Proverbs tells us that a wise person knows when they are satisfied and my late father-in-law Zelik, would say it’s best to get up from the table not feeling bloated.
The Rambam (Maimonides ) also taught that exercise is the best preventative medicine, that vigorous activity preserves the body and sedentary behaviour weakens it. Michael Kaufman contends that movement during Jewish prayer was actually designed to exercise the body, that the practice of ‘shokeling ‘or swaying was prompted by the verse in Psalms: ”All my bones shall say who is like you God” (Psalms 35:10). He also ingeniously points out that the contemporary practice of standing desks has long been the practice of studying in the Yeshivah at a lectern or ‘shtender’, literally a stander. So coming to Shule and doing all that standing and swaying is good for your health!
Another health practice is praying on behalf of the sick. In our daily Amidah or standing prayer we plead with God -“Heal us, Lord, and we shall be healed…Bring complete healing from all our afflictions”. ‘You can add your own personal prayer for a sick person inserting their name, asking God to speedily send a complete healing of the soul and body to the individual. There is also a public prayer. Like the private one it’s a holistic prayer in that it is for both physical and spiritual healing. It’s usually said in the synagogue when the Torah is read: “May the One who blessed our ancestors bless and heal the one who is ill. May the holy Blessed one overflow with compassion and restore this one to health…”
It’s one of the most poignant parts of my daily prayer and I visualise the faces and aching hearts of those who are hurting physically, mentally emotionally. It’s also a moment of public pathos reflected on the worried, concerned faces of the worshippers crowding the Bimah with the names of their sick family members, friends or simply a sick stranger in need of healing. The new RCA siddur (quoting the Tur authority) suggests that the twenty seven words of the Refaeinu/ healing prayer in the Amidah correspond to the 27 words in Exodus 15:26 by which God promises Israel that if they fulfil his commandments, He in turn will heal them…
With all this information about striving and praying for good health the comment of Rabbi Judah in the Mishna (Kiddushin 82) that the best of doctors are destined for hell is all the more astounding! Now while it is possible that Rabbi Judah was having a bad day after a botched medical procedure, it is also plausible that he was reflecting on the potential for doctors to become arrogant and believe they are the ultimate healers. One commentator (the Meiri) opines that physicians are not always diligent and do not admit when they are not knowledgeable. Presumably if they were more honest about the limits of their knowledge he would not have them condemned to hell. A 13th century rabbi turns the Mishna on its head and suggests that Medicine is so important that one who has the talent and ability to be a healer and does not choose this path -that is the one who is certainly destined to hell!
Despite Rabbi Judah, the best of our doctors have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes and surely a place in heaven! Abi gezunt or Be healthy is a popular Yiddish blessing.
On this Shabbat (called Chazon) associated with despair (destruction of the Temples etc) and the loss of health both physical and spiritual let’s shout out for good health and healing -Abi Gezunt!