“Thinking Backward and Forward” by Peter S. Knobel

Reference: Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility

As I read through the wonderful essays in this edition of Sh’ma, my mind was flooded with myriad thoughts. Judaism mandates that each person must take care of his or her own health and that society must provide health care. Judaism combines the best of biomedicine and humanistic health care. It teaches us about a person-centered, communal-based and societally supported network of resources and relationships. It supports the concept that increased scientific knowledge can improve our ability to cure but that healing and cure are not synonymous. A person may be cured but remain broken, and a person may not be cured but be healed — their brokenness overcome
by discovering meaning and being surrounded by uplifting soulful care. Halakhah helps us determine the extent of our obligation, and Aggadah helps us correct a thick narrative that weaves
a fabric of connection between professional caregivers, patient, family, religious community, and society as a whole. These preceding pages of essays remind us that health care is a right and
call us to enter the conversation about how and how much health care to provide. The public policy debate about access, health insurance, increasingly sophisticated and costly technology, genetic
medicine, gender-based difference, and natural life span beg for serious Jewish ethical reflection and advocacy.

These essays recognize that human beings are both body and soul. Personhood involves embodiment. A simple mechanical model of an ill person as a broken machine whose parts
are to be repaired or replaced ignores Judaism’s understanding that while we live there can be no artificial separation of body and soul. The recent revival of discussions in the liberal communities about resurrection of the dead reminds us that in our confrontation with our mortality our ultimate
hope is immortality. The only me that I know is the one that inhabits my body. Although illness and
suffering engender fear, Judaism teaches that we must embrace the person who is ill. Visiting the sick, bikur cholim, offering a healing touch of hand or a soft voice of loving concern can change outcomes and mitigate suffering.

The future is both brighter and darker. We can do more, medically, than ever before. But we also know that resources are finite. A central thrust of Jewish bio-ethics is the individual. To do everything is a Jewish norm. And yet we have learned that to do everything is not always in
the individual’s best interest —especially at the end of life. A central thrust of Jewish social ethics is tzedek, the equitable distribution of resources. The future will require us to join the debate between our obligation to individuals and our obligation to society. The future discussion will not be limited to a single locale or single country; it will be a global conversation. Our mutual interdependence
becomes more apparent each day, and cyberspace intrudes into personal space. The distinction between virtual and real community is exacerbated and bridged at the same time.

I want to conclude with a brief Talmudic story (Ketubot 77b) that I learned from Rabbi Simkha Weintraub. It tells the story of the sages’ reactions to a person who has a terrible disease
called ra’athan. The sages mentioned in the passage are known in other parts of the Talmud as great healers. All of the sages refuse to minister to people who suffer from ra’athan. In fact they avoid all contact with them. Only Rabbi Joshua ben Levi acts differently. He studies Torah with the ill person. For this act he is rewarded. When he is about to die, God commands the Angel of Death to grant him anything he wishes. R. Joshua asks to see his place in Paradise, and as he travels to Paradise with the Angel of Death. R. Joshua demands to hold the Angel’s knife by which he inflicts suffering and death on human beings. When they arrive in Paradise, R. Joshua leaps over the wall of Paradise and refuses to return to earth. The Angel demands the return of his knife. R. Joshua refuses until a Divine Voice demands that he returned it “because it is required for the mortals.”
Although death and suffering are part of life, we seek to delay, to transcend, to quell these experiences. This has been the Jewish struggle in the past, and it remains our challenge in future. These essays interface the reality of our frailty and mortality with our responsibility to heal, to care, and to fight for justice.


Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, Vol. 33, No. 599