It’s hard to think of another profession that has become more associated with the Jewish people than that of ‘doctor’. Google the term ‘Jewish Doctor’ and it will come back with more than 44 million matches.
But the huge irony is that the original Jewish view of health and wellbeing that you find in the Torah couldn't be further from the Western medical model epitomised by the quintessential Jewish Doctor.
In the West, human health has increasingly been reduced to one big chemical equation. How the patient actually lives, eats, and acts before they get sick is barely examined, and often completely ignored.
But the authentic Jewish view of health has always linked a person’s health to their character traits, emotions and behaviour. There’s loads of examples of this, but let’s stick with a few of the most well-known:
- In the Torah, Miriam got struck with the disease of tzaraat (often incorrectly translated as 'leprosy') for speaking badly about her brother, Moses, when the Israelites were travelling in the Desert.
- A little later on, in the book of Kings, King Azaria also got smitten with tzaraat, as a direct result of trying to perform a service in the Temple that only the Temple Priests, or Kohens, were meant to do.
- A few of generations' later, King Hezekiah almost died from a serious illness that the prophet Isiaiah told him God had sent because the King had refused to get married, because he’d had a prophetic vision that his children were going to be evil. Upon hearing the prophet Isaiah’s words, Hezekiah agreed to marry Isiaiah’s daughter, and to raise a family - and he recovered from his illness on the spot, and lived another 15 healthy years.
The authentic Jewish view of health has always been holistic, with a person’s physical health being fundamentally connected to their emotional health and their spiritual standing.
Ten centuries’ ago, the famous Jewish philosopher and writer, Maimonides, acquired world-wide renown for his ability to heal illness primarily through regulating his patients’ diet. His approach was so successful, that the Sultan hired him as his personal physician, and Maimonides became the first ‘rock star’ Jewish doctor in the world.
The irony is that while Maimonides is often hailed in many circles as being the father of the modern Jewish approach to medicine, if he was alive today most of the medical profession would probably snub him for being a quack. That’s because while it’s a no-brainer in the holistic health world that a person's mental and emotional state affects their physical health, and vice-versa, the Western Jewish doctor is trained to treat people’s illnesses purely at the physical level. And spiritually-speaking, this is a huge problem.
Why? Because the Western approach to illness and healing cuts God completely out of the picture. Instead of viewing illness as some sort of Divine message, or clue, that the patient needs to examine something in their life, and often make some big changes in how they think, believe and act, illness becomes a random act, dependent on statistics and devoid of Divine Providence.
Let’s take a common example, to see how this one-dimensional approach to health can often lead to ‘kill’ instead of ‘cure’. A number of scientific studies have been done showing that people who frequently get angry and stressed are at far more risk of developing heart disease.
Western medicine says: take a pill, put in a stent, have a heart bypass and it solves all the problems. Encouraging the patient to work on reducing their stress, or figuring out why they’re getting so angry, barely ever gets mentioned. But that’s the emotional and spiritual root of the problem! Solve that, and the underlying reasons for the heart problems will reduce, dissolve and could even completely disappear.
So the authentic Jewish approach says: check what's got out of kilter in your emotions, and in your thought processes, and in your life, and reconnect back to God. Then, if the problem doesn't resolve, still take the pill if you want to, or schedule the op - but know that your health is much more than a physical issue; it's also affected by your spiritual and emotional state.
In his best-selling book, ‘Love, medicine and miracles’, Bernie Siegel MD – formerly the archetypal Jewish doctor-surgeon - describes how putting God into the picture transformed his surgical practice, and lead to much better health outcomes for many of his patients.
In one particularly poignant passage, he recounts the story of Phyllis who was suffering from apparently ‘incurable’ pancreatic cancer, and who’d been sent home to die. A few months’ later, a healthy Phyllis re-appeared back at the hospital for a check-up, and the surgeon who examined her couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and wanted to know what had happened.