January 19, 2020

A Jew’s Duty: Healing Oneself and Others

Key concepts within the longstanding Jewish tradition provide insight into a historical Jewish approach to health and the provision of health care.

This summary of prominent concepts largely reflects the perspectives of the more liberal, progressive Jewish community.

Jewish writings are quite extensive on each topic. The reader must understand that this synopsis cannot fully capture the extraordinary depth and specificity of Jewish law and interpretation through history about Judaism, health, medicine, health care and related issues.

Our bodies belong to God

According to the historical Jewish tradition, our bodies (and everything else) belong to God. They are on loan to us during our lifetimes. Upon our deaths, they return to God. During our lifetimes, we have an obligation, a religious duty, to live lives of holiness and maintain our health as a way of taking good care of God’s property. Taking good care of our bodies is central to Judaism.

Maimonides, the great medieval physician, rabbi and philosopher, outlined obligations we would classify as health preservation strategies: A proper diet, getting sufficient exercise and sleep, maintaining good hygiene and having a healthy mind.

Jewish tradition embraces the idea that body and soul are integrated and that we use our complete selves to perform our obligations to God.

Equally important were obligations not to harm oneself or one’s body. Rabbi David Teutsch states that “keeping our bodies in tip-top shape is what some would call a prerequisite to mental and spiritual hygiene.”

Until more modern times, Jewish law required Jews to live in a community where there was a doctor, public baths and healthy food — specifically, fruit.

Created in God’s image

Jewish tradition holds that divinity is inherent in us. Just as in modern Western culture, Judaism focuses on the fundamental dignity of human life. Judaism strongly affirms that all members of society possess value and dignity. Jews are required to preserve the dignity of self and others. Taking care of oneself and healing others is a way to fulfill this obligation. Because poverty is an affront to the dignity inherent in us as God’s creations, all those who can are obliged to help.

Jewish tradition strongly protects those who are vulnerable and disenfranchised. Each person’s unique value is honored.

Rather than shrinking from differences, the early rabbis determined that one should be required to say a blessing upon seeing someone with a disability. The blessing honors our differences: “Praised are you, Lord our God, who created us as different.”

Jewish tradition also focuses on helping someone with a disability to be productive.

Our Torah ancestors lived long lives. As for aging, Jewish tradition affirms the meaning and wisdom that can occur in later life.

Spiritual development does not stop as one ages. It might intensify. Each person, regardless of age or physical or mental status, has value. We have an inherent responsibility to provide for future generations. Thomas Cole, a leading scholar of aging, health and the humanities, wrote: “One does not retire from the [Jewish] covenant, which provides a fundamental framework and obligation between God and the Jewish people.”

A human being is an integrated whole

Contrary to other Western religions, Jewish tradition asserts that the soul and the body are equally important.

According to Teutsch, “Jewish thought generally treats a living person’s body and soul as fully intertwined.”

Our bodies are as much the creations of God as our minds, wills and emotions. Care of our bodies as well as care of our souls is important.

Jewish tradition embraces the idea that body and soul are integrated and that we use our complete selves to perform our obligations to God. Shalom means “complete, harmonized well-being” in addition to peace. The rabbis understood there was no peace without harmony and well-being — an important concept for the individual and the community.

A daily prayer asking for healing of body and soul is written in the plural. Jews pray that we should all be healed.

Tradition focuses on healing mental health as well as physical health. Rabbinic interpretations maintained that mental health was to be treated as seriously as physical health, given the intricate link between human body and soul.

Saving a life

Pikuach nefesh embodies the Jewish obligation to save lives. Jews are obligated to do everything possible to save a life. Preserving a life takes precedence over almost all other Jewish laws. This obligation is embedded in the belief we are created in God’s image.

As Jews, we affirm God’s presence in the world by healing as many of God’s creations as possible.

The duty to heal

Jewish tradition emphasizes that the duty to heal is an obligation of each person. It must be balanced with the duties to provide other essential services, such as food, shelter and clothing. As opposed to the Declaration of Independence, which begins with inalienable rights, Judaism begins with duties, indeed God’s commandments.

Healing is considered “a duty one has to oneself and to others.” The Torah’s injunction to pursue justice is captured in the imperative in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice thou shall pursue,” and is tied to communal healing and personal well-being.

Throughout Jewish history, the rabbis took this injunction seriously. Jewish tradition strongly focused on the importance of providing food, shelter, clothing and medical care to those in need, and to use a community’s resources wisely to balance their allocation and make sure the social safety net comprised all these primary needs.

The Jewish concept of tzedakah, “charitable giving in pursuit of justice,” is built on understanding that caring for others, particularly thepoor, is the right thing to do.

We each have the right to receive and the responsibility to provide health care. The Torah admonishes us not to harden our hearts nor shut our hands to the needy. The injunction to heal is for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Rabbi Nancy Epstein, associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Prevention at the Drexel University School of Public Health, worked in the public health field for 40 years.