A Dose of Wisdom to Combat Illness

"Illness and Health in the Jewish Tradition," edited by David L. Freeman and Judith Z. Abrams (Jewish Publication Society, 1999, $24.95).

What is your definition of a new book? Mine is a book that I have not yet read, regardless of when it was published. And so, let me call your attention to a book that was published a couple of years ago, but that did not receive the attention that it deserved and that you may have missed.

This is a book for those who are or who some day may be ill, which is another way of saying for everyone. It contains wisdom culled out of ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary Jewish literature that is intended for the patient, the caregiver and the physician. Like every anthology, it has some passages in it that will be your favorites and some that you will not like as much, but there are more than enough of the former to make this a precious and valuable collection.

The writings are of different kinds. There are, first of all, selections from the Psalms, because this is the great treasure house of the human spirit. The Psalms are poems and prayers written by and for those who are ill, and because they are so excruciatingly personal, their power does not diminish with the passing of the centuries.

Then there are selections from rabbinic literature, from both the legal sections and from the midrashim. And then there are selections from the law codes, in which all the bewildering questions that confront patients, caregivers and physicians today are struggled with: When should you visit a sick person and what should you say? When can you let go of life and how long should you fight? How much must you tell a patient when he/she wants to know the truth and how much should you tell when he/she does not want to know the truth?

There are also essays by modern Jewish thinkers–Harold Schulweis, William Cutter, Hirshel Jaffe and others — each reflecting on what they have learned as a result of their illnesses and what they now understand as a result of their recoveries.

These essays do not deal, for the most part, with the theoretical theological questions but with the real concerns of people who are in the hospital. They do not deal with such questions as who has priority for a transplant or whether euthanasia or abortion or stem cell research are right or wrong.

Instead, they deal with such questions as what can we do to make a patient feel that he/she has some control, how can we make the consulting room look less forbidding to the caregivers, and how can a person who has to wear a silly looking gown and a bracelet with his name on it, and who has to sleep in a bed that has sides like a crib, and who has to stare up at the nostrils of those who treat him, feel dignity?

Above all, they deal with the question of where shall a patient find a measure of hope and meaning in the time of illness?

There are a 127 selections in this book. They range from the Chumash and the Book of Job through Maimonides and Glueckel of Hameln in the Middle Ages, to Sholem Asch and Sholom Aleichem in modern times, to Victor Frankl, Max Lerner, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Adin Steinsaltz in our own time.

The prayers and the customs of the tradition are here, such as the "Misheberach," the changing of the person’s name, the amulets, the vidui. New customs and new ways of giving hope and will to live are to be found here, too.

Not only will each person have his or her own favorite in this anthology, but I suspect that different pages will be each person’s favorite at different times in his life. Rachel Cowan’s memoir of what it was like to stay in her husband’s hospital room and to celebrate Shabbat with him there near the end of his life is a gem that those who need be caretakers will appreciate.

The physician’s oath and Isaac Israeli’s portrait of the good physician will speak to doctors about the spiritual challenges they face. (I wish that Nancy Flam’s exquisite prayer for doctors to recite when they lose a patient had been included; perhaps it can be added in the next edition.)

The principles of administration for a hospital that were written for Kiryat Sanz Hospital in Netanya, Israel, is an extraordinary document that should be must reading for anyone who administers a hospital. Many other selections in this collection will speak to those who are, or who some day will be, ill and will show them what those who have walked the lonely path that they must tread have learned.

This source book is the work of two remarkable people: Dr. David Freeman, who teaches internal medicine and rheumatology at Harvard Medical School, and Rabbi Judith Abrams, who teaches Talmud via the internet from Houston.

The book came out of a healing service called Refuat Hanefesh that has been held since l990 at Temple Israel in Boston, where patients, caregivers and physicians meet once a month to share prayers, poems and readings — many of them set to music — and study selections from classic Jewish sources and contemporary Jewish thinkers that grapple with how to achieve both strength of body and strength of spirit.

Now that I have discovered this anthology, I am going to make it the textbook for a study group on health, illness and recovery that I want to teach in my community, because there is no one who does not now or will not some day have to confront the issues that this book deals with. So it is a wonderful resource to study now, as well as when we will need it.