Torah – The First Medical Textbook

Illness and Health in Jewish Traditions: Writings from the Bible to Today
edited by David L. Freeman and Judith Z. Abrams
Jewish Publication Society, $24.95

Judaism has always recognized the effects, both physical and spiritual, of illness. Torah, after all, is the first Jewish medical textbook and contains the first discussion of Jewish medical ethics. There, we can read detailed descriptions of diseases that may render an individual “unclean,” as well as the basic rules of personal and communal hygiene; we can witness the visit of the angels to Abraham after his circumcision, an account of the first performance of bikkur cholim, the divine injunction to visit the sick; we can hear the simple prayer of Moses for his sister Miriam that demonstrates the power of words to heal. This historical understanding of the connection between the healing of body and soul can also be found in Talmud and other rabbinic texts, as well in the structure of the synagogue service; and in recent years, the Jewish Renewal movement has focused new attention on these rich and varied traditions in order to offer spiritual comfort and healing to those who are ill.

Illness and Health in Jewish Traditions: Writings from the Bible to Today is a comprehensive anthology of the various responses by Judaism and by individual Jews to the complex and often painful issues raised by physical illness, pain and suffering. In the preface, Rabbi Abrams, known for her web site offering Talmud study in a very egalitarian mode, and Dr. Freeman express the hope that “this anthology will prove useful to people who now suffer from major illness, and for their loved ones…for chaplains…caregivers…and anyone interested in the interconnection of medicine and religion.” One hundred and twenty-seven selections from various texts, ranging from the Bible to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from Talmud to Reb Nachman, from Maimonides to Sholem Asch, from Gluckel of Hameln to Max Lerner, are organized into seven categories (“Seeking Meaning in Suffering,” “From Where Will My Help Come?,” “The Sacredness of Health” and others), each with a very brief introduction.

Although, individually, almost every selection is well chosen and presents yet another facet of the Jewish tradition of illness and healing, the book’s usefulness for the lay reader may be limited: Without an extended introduction that discusses the religious, ethical and spiritual underpinnings of these interpretations, the pieces may not all fit together into a comprehensive whole. It will more likely serve as a useful reference source for rabbis and others whose work focuses on issues of health and healing. In addition, although the author of each piece is briefly identified, little historical context is provided. Nevertheless, for those interested in exploring how we as a people have responded through the centuries to our human need for a “healing of body, the healing of spirit,” this book provides a beginning.

Tamara Green is Professor of Classics at Hunter College. She is a member of the Board of the National Center for Jewish Healing.