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Commentary on Tanakh Talks 12/21/20

Don Perlmutter

How Does Torah and Jewish Culture Deal with the Subject of Physical Health?
There have been many references to issues of health from Biblical through to modern times. Our discussion began with Torah.

God as doctor
The earliest reference to our health can be found in Exodus in which God assures the Jews that if they obey his commandments and observe all his statutes, they will be spared the disease visited on the Egyptians. He states: “I am G-d, your healer." The implication is, if you are observant, God will look out for you. This raises the question: If God is The Healer, and we do not heal, has God failed? Our discussion at that point turned to the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner’s position is that God is responsible for our blessings, but not for the misfortunes (including illness) that befall us.

The Biblical Approach to Medical Care
Rabbi Edery used Torah’s prescribed management of leprosy as an example of a rudimentary understanding of principles of contagion: the need to isolate with the goal of declaration of purity by the priest and a ritualized return of the patient to the community. The important point here is that the priest was the purveyor of medical knowledge and practice because healing was considered to be in God’s hands. As a result, medical care and physicians were not held in high regard.  

Torah: Prevention is the best medicine!
Maimonides, the twelfth century physician and renowned Torah scholar, advised the Sultan of Egypt that “the Divine is the true great physician” and that the ability to prevent illness is a greater proof of a physician’s skill than the ability to cure." In other words, God has imbued the body with inherent healing properties that can protect us, but we must actively practice preventive measures to remain healthy. Those measures include good hygiene, proper diet, exercise, and sleep. 

Furthermore, Maimonides explained that the goal of maintaining physical health and vigor through these practices is to have a sound body with which to serve God. It should not be a means simply to be more productive.    

In the Talmud, Hillel set the example for his students by going to the bathhouse and explaining that this is not a mere indulgence, but a mitzvah. He was caring for the body, which was created in the “Divine Image."

Rabbi Dorf stated that what we eat is a major factor in disease prevention. Maimonides said: "Let your food be your medicine." While many of the rules of Kashrut do not have actual health implications, positive effects can be derived from the clean practices and avoidance of prohibited animal flesh which may have carried disease or toxins.

Body vs. Soul
The subject of illness and healing initiated a discussion of the nature of illness and where it resides. During the Biblical period, there was no real distinction made between body and soul. A person’s body was deemed synonymous with his/her soul. A vestige of this remains in nautical parlance: a ship’s manifest lists the number of “souls” on board. When we recite the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing, we ask for renewal of both spirit and body. This acknowledges the interconnection between health of the spirit (nefesh) and that of the body. Psychogenic diseases (actual physical disorders caused or aggravated by emotional stress) are a manifestation of this interconnection. 

In the Rabbinic period, the leading thinkers embraced the separation of body and soul. This coincides with a period in which medical science was progressing and physicians who could affect cures based on empirical evidence were gaining respect.        

Health Trends today vs Torah’s Principles
Our discussion took a turn to those issues that relate to health in our current culture. Many of the health issues endemic in current American culture have behavioral components: Overeating, poor diet choices, lack of exercise. These run counter to Halacha (Jewish Law), which encourages moderation in all things. Dietary choices may be driven by the economics of food production: cheap junk food is unhealthy and consumed more by the financially disadvantaged. Lack of exercise can be largely attributed to the sedentary nature of our work. Also, parental concerns over the security of their children often stifles outdoor play. In Jewish culture, athleticism was not always encouraged. It was considered an undesirable diversion from Torah study. 

Could a return to basic Jewish principles of moderation and caring for your own body as a mitzvah make us healthier? 
Watch for a continuation of this exploration in a future class.     

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784