Judaism, Health and Healing: How a New Jewish Communal Field Took Root and Where it Might Grow

Reference: Hebrew Union College

Summer/Fall 2009

By Michele F. Prince

Originally published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Volume 84, No. 3/4

Implicit within Judaism is a vision of human well-being that is grounded in “a fierce engagement with life, the importance of community, and a belief that sacred texts and rituals can be relevant to modern dilemmas. It is both an intensely private experience and inextricably bound to the fate of the collective” (Kessler, Rosenthal, & Weintraub, 2003). The field of Judaism, health, and healing draws on a deeply rooted wisdom that has evolved for more than 3,500 years and has much to say about the effects of stress, isolation, loss, hard times, and celebration on the body, mind, and spirit.

Heightened attention to the individual versus the communal, new shapes and forms of the Jewish family and life-cycle practice, distance from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel, and demographic trends including the graying of the Jewish population have fueled the needs for new intellectual understanding of the community and redesigned programming. The field of Judaism, health, and healing, a subsector within the Jewish communal field, has developed to provide intellectual, spiritual, and clinical resources and services to individuals and families experiencing illness and wellness.

The growth of this subsector has also been coupled with a recent proliferation of studies on religion and health within the academic community. Such research affirms that communal participation in religion and private spiritual devotion are beneficial to the health of people and populations regardless of one’s faith tradition (Levin, 2001). There is good reason to believe that what is true for religion generally, in this regard, is true for Judaism.

 What is the Jewish Healing Movement?

In an early article on the Jewish healing movement, Rachel Cowan, one of the movement’s “foremothers,” wrote that it was created to provide

 spiritual resources for Jews facing serious illness and their families and caregivers….

Jews are discovering that they can turn to Judaism for rituals and practices, developed over the centuries, which help them fi nd strength and maintain hope. The Jewish healing movement involves rabbis, chaplains, and medical caregivers who connect Jews with these practices. They work also to revise and renew these rituals, liturgies, and to give them a voice the modern Jew can hear. (Cowan, 1995)

As was described in this journal in 2007 by Tracy Kite and Susan Rosenthal, the contemporary Jewish healing movement emerged in the early 1990s. Initial efforts were spearheaded by professionals and lay leaders who came to realize that, as a consequence of modern life, many Jews no longer had easy or meaningful access to the spiritual and communal supports that had sustained previous generations of Jews through difficult times of illness and loss. These Jewish leaders sought to provide institutional remedies for this state of affairs. Communal agencies and organizations, grassroots groups, and synagogues developed and delivered health-related services and resources. These initiatives drew on wellsprings of Jewish thinking that spoke to the religious tradition as a resource for comfort and solace (Kite & Rosenthal, 2007). Such developments came at an opportune time, as Jewish religious leaders begin to decry that in the health care field, as in society, “the sacred is being supplanted by technology” (Silverman in Cutter, 2007).

The field of Judaism, health, and healing now encompasses a vast and complex array of components, including social services; spiritual counseling; individual prayer and healing services; education and training of volunteers, clergy, and health care professionals; advocacy for health care coverage; and bioethical decision making. The Jewish healing movement evolved to provide services and resources not only for those experiencing loss and illness but also for those who wish to foster wellness by enhancing the engagement of spirituality and framing the pursuit of well-being as a sacred journey. The Jewish healing movement, in its broadest sense, is thus a pathway to transcendence, mindfulness, and wholeness for individual Jews and for the Jewish people. This movement recognizes that, for Jews, “religious faith is the most profound response to the wonders and trauma of life” (Karff, 2005).

This rediscovered heritage of Judaism, health, and healing is grounded in traditional Judaism, but it also is characterized by a new elasticity, stretched by the search for a personal and professional spirituality, demographic shifts, and the feminist movement. The National Center for Jewish Healing caught this notion by pointing out that “the history and practice of authentic Judaism is an ever-evolving one; and today, the Jewish healing movement integrates modern psychology, medical science, complementary medicine and pertinent insights of other religious traditions” (Kessler et al., 2003).

Jewish discourse on health and healing is part of a longstanding tradition of religious and scholarly writing on the intersection of the sacred and physical realms. Summarizing these discussions is not a simple matter of tracing a single historical trajectory; rather, many distinct threads define this discourse. It includes biblical, rabbinic, and contemporary writing on myriad topics (Freeman & Abrams, 1999). Judaism, for example, has much to say about human anatomy and physiology and about illness and health (Preuss, 1993). Leading rabbinic sages wrote about medical themes, notably Maimonides, who published extensively on both philosophical theology and medicine (Rosner & Kottek, 1993). Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Aruch (a foundational Jewish legal code) includes much on the implications of law on the ill and their caregivers (Avraham, 2000). Modern Jewish bioethics is informed by a deep tradition of writing on the halakhic dimensions of health care and healing (Dorff, 1998). In recent years, there have been continuing conversations about Jewish pastoral care (Friedman, 2005), about communal and health services directed to older adults (Friedman, 2008), and about what has come to be known as the Jewish healing movement.

 Influences on the Jewish Healing Movement

Rachel Cowan, in her early article on Jewish healing, reflected on many Jews’ initial discomfort with the concept:

 Back in 1991, most people in the Jewish community thought the (Jewish healing) concept a foreign one. Jews believe in medicine, they said, not in healing. Healing seemed a dangerous word, an intrusion of fundamentalist Christian revivalism or New Age crystals into our culture and worldview (Cowan, 1995).

 In response to that discomfort, another of the movement’s foremothers, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, framed “the healing-curing issue in terms of emphasizing r’fuat hanefesh (healing of the spirit) rather than r’fuat haguf (healing of the body).” She is quoted as saying, “We (were) very sensitive to the possibility that the mainstream Jewish community would see our work as too funky, marginal, inaccessible…. We wanted to make sure that more conventional Jews didn’t think that Jewish healing was only for Jews who like a countercultural, progressive style” (Barnes & Sered, 2004).

Jewish culture has a lengthy history of healing rituals, including fasting, praying, wearing protective amulets, and going on pilgrimage. These practices have largely fallen into disuse in contemporary life, suggests Susan Starr Sered, an anthropology scholar who studied the Jewish healing field in 1999–2001, interviewing and reading the scholarship of many of the founders of the field. “Since the beginning of the 20th century, American Jews, for the most part, have been among the most eager proponents of modern medicine, and in the forefront of immigrant groups that have rejected traditional ‘superstitions’ and ‘magical practices’ in regard to health and illness” (Sered, 2002). A phrase Sered heard frequently in Jewish healing contexts was, “ ‘This is not about curing, this is about healing.’ That phrase often is followed by: ‘To be cured, go see a doctor.’ The implication is that American Jewish healing does not seek to replace conventional medicine, but rather to complement and supplement medical treatments and practitioners” (Barnes & Sered, 2004)

From the clinical side, I see the situation differently. The majority of mainstream liberal Jews are not employing what she calls folk practices, but many Jews, particularly Jewish women, do use a variety of healing practices. Rabbi Pearl Barlev, Jewish chaplain at the UCLA Medical Center, agreed in a recent interview:

I am immersed in the world of Jewish healing and chaplaincy and so I do see Jewish people, often Jewish women, who read psalms, check their mezuzot for accuracy if they are not feeling well, and give tzedakah as an offering for healing. I even see the occasional necklace with a red stone, among women who are struggling with infertility, or the occasional red string bracelet. Even though these may be called folk practices, or even superstitions, much of this is documented in what we esteem as a variety of Jewish sacred texts and represents a thread of thinking through Jewish thought movements over time (Barlev, personal communication, May 19, 2009).

This understanding of women’s increased likelihood of turning to healing and spiritual tools and texts is notable in the Jewish healing movement. Rabbis Valerie Joseph and Alana Suskin have described feminism’s historical impact on Judaism, health, and healing:

We see that the Jewish healing movement, a movement created largely by women, has transformed the landscape of Jewish healing. This is a feminist message: healing women heal Judaism…. As women became rabbis, the interest in spirituality increased. We came to see that not all rabbis are pulpit rabbis…. The unfolding of what is hurting a person through the art of active listening is an essential part of our tradition that took feminist healers to recover (Joseph & Suskin, 2008).

 The Jewish Healing Centers

In 1991, the emerging leadership of the healing movement organized a conference for rabbis and committed community leaders to share experiences and look closely both at what Judaism had to say about illness and loss and what Jewish life had to offer those who were ill or bereaved. Shortly thereafter, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the New York Jewish Healing Center were founded, and the National Center for Jewish Healing (NCJH) followed in 1994. “The NCJH was developed to help support and build the growing network of Jewish spiritual care and services throughout North America,” stated Susan Rosenthal, the organization’s coordinator (personal communication, May 14, 2009).

Another element of the Jewish healing centers’ history was a “coalescence of twelve-step programming, HIV/AIDS, and the need for not only women, but gay and lesbian rabbis to fi nd and make a place for themselves,” said Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center (personal communication, May 11, 2009). The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center is an example of a Jewish healing center that is still thriving today, with a staff of four rabbis who provide chaplaincy and support services to anyone who wants to see a rabbi, regardless of affiliation or financial resources.

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