Book Review: Illness and religion, part 2: Midrash and healing

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Jewish healing movement, which began in the early 1990s, is still a relatively unknown entity to many Jews. The healing centers that comprise this movement are careful not to speak about themselves in terms of curing people of their illnesses; these are not medical organizations, but spiritual ones. What is the difference between healing and curing? The website of the National Center for Jewish Healing in New York City defines Jewish healing as “the creative use of traditional Jewish resources, combined with psychological insights, mind-body techniques and community to those seeking wholeness, comfort and connection in challenging times.” The San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Healing Center website describes the healing process “as acceptance, a healing of emotional wounds, or a personal journey towards wholeness” and seeks to help people accomplish this task through “prayer, specialized rituals, education, information or simply a listening presence.”
In 2009, the San Francisco healing center and the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion cosponsored a conference on Jewish healing and midrash that inspired the book “Midrash and Medicine: Healing Body and Soul in the Jewish Interpretive Tradition,” edited by Rabbi William Cutter, Ph.D. (Jewish Lights Publishing). “Midrash and Medicine” explores how midrash (the telling of stories) can help those looking to restore their sense of wholeness, even if their illness can’t be cured.
When Jewish spiritual leaders think about questions related to medicine, they usually think in terms of halachah, Jewish law, about what is required, permitted or not permitted in terms of treatment. The healing movement focuses instead on different issues, particularly emotional ones. For example, in his excellent essay “L’Mashal: Metaphor and Meaning in Illness” (a mashal is a story or parable), Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, L.C.S.W., shows that after describing how they experience their illness, people feel less alone and better understood. He emphasizes the importance of paying close attention to the metaphors used in these encounters since, when “relating to another person as a fellow image of God, we want to know what makes him tick, how she has faced previous challenges in life, when life has shone and when it has been shrouded in darkness. And metaphors are critical in this exploration.” For Weintraub, acknowledging someone’s personal experience allows the healer to tailor his or her approach. He also notes that spiritual helpers need to be aware of their role in the process, which can include being an advocate, sparring partner, witness, punching bag and burden sharer, among others.
The 10 sections of “Midrash and Medicine” consist of sugyot/pairings of essays, the second of which offers either counter-arguments (for example, Stuart Schoffman, Ph.D., who is paired with Weintraub in “Metaphors and Side Effects,” warns of the problematic side of metaphors) or compliments the first, offering additional information. Among the topics are “The Narrow Place From Which Healing Comes, and the Expansive Edge of the Continent,” “Lyric and Community,” “God in the Doctor’s Office: Some Midrashic Elaborations,” “Contexts of Suffering, Contexts of Hope,” “Midrashic Rendering of Age and Obligation,” “Narrative and Loss,” “The Dilemmas of Psychotherapy: The Healing Response of Midrash,” “The Narrative Turn in Jewish Bioethics” and “What Takes Place and What Can Be Changed.”
My favorite sections suggested practical way to use midrash or offered stories based on clinical experience. In their essays in “Lyric and Community,” Rabbi William Cutler, Ph.D. (“The Midrashic Impulse in Poems, Our Dialogue with Ecclesiastes and Other Lyric Interpretations”), and Rabbi Sheldon Marder (“‘Psalms, Songs and Stories’: Midrash and Music at the Jewish Home of San Francisco”) show how poetry can help those who are ill define their physical and mental condition. Cutler quotes poetry from patients and physicians that gives readers different views of the medical experience, from humorous to serious. Marder highlights a program used in San Francisco during which nursing home residents wrote their own music and lyrics as an “affirmation of hopefulness and abundance in the later years of life.” The production featuring this work gave “a room made of stone, wood and steel... the glow of sacred space.”
Another excellent pairing of essays can be found in “Midrashic Rendering of Age and Obligation.” In “After the Life Cycle: The Moral Challenges of Later Life,” Thomas Cole discusses how the societal view of the elderly has changed. Although too much of his essay focuses on the analysis of other writers, his nine questions speaking to the responsibilities of later life are wonderful and should be explored by everyone as they age. His focus on the obligations of midlife and later years – rather than the idea that people should be freed from responsibilities – is challenging and necessary as the number of elderly increase. Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, M.S.W., M.A.J.C.S., B.C.C., supports Cole’s contention in her “The Journey of Later Life,” which gives examples from scripture and from her experience working with the elderly to show how later life can be a productive time.
Additional essays of interest include:
Dr. Eitan Fishbane’s painful, but moving, look at the death of his wife and its affect on their young daughter in “Words in the Dark: A Personal Journey.”
“The Danger of Cure, the Value of Healing: Toward a Midrashic Way of Being,” a complex essay by Philip Cushman, Ph.D., about psychotherapy, which ends with an excellent summary of how the Jewish healing movement can help those in need.
Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler’s call for a different type of healing prayer in “A Midrash on the Mi Shebrakh: A Prayer for Persisting,” one that focuses on incurable chronic illnesses.
“The Human Body and the Body Politic” by Rabbi Richard Address, D.Min., which discusses “the growing trend within [the Jewish] community to examine the richness of Jewish tradition as it relates to health and wellness, spirituality and medicine.”
Although many of the essays in “Midrash and Medicine” are written for professionals in the healing field, they can also be read by those interested in learning how midrash can have a positive impact on people’s lives. Even though the healing movement can never cure suffering, its adherents can offer ways to ease people’s spiritual pain and allow them to find meaning even during difficult times.