Not long ago, the notion of prayer curing physical ills could be found only among Christian Scientists and Pentecostal Christians.
Today, a similar notion is gaining wide credence – and a growing audience – among religiously liberal Jews.
The Jewish concept of spiritual healing is not that prayer alone can cure physical illness, nor that prayer will necessarily cure when used as a complement to traditional medicine.
“We make a distinction between curing and healing,” said Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the recently created National Center for Jewish Healing. “The last thing I want to do is to sell snake oil.”
“We look at the person and we see a body, a psyche, emotions and a spiritual and religious life,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure that the spiritual dimension isn’t neglected.”
According to Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, distinguished professor of education and Jewish religious thought at the Reform movement’s seminary, “We are conscious of our limitations and are groping for ways to let God’s power and presence into our lives more clearly.”
Borowitz gave the keynote speech at a conference co-sponsored by the national center, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reconstructionist Rabbinc College.
The conference – “From Where Will My Help Come?: An Academic Exploration of Sources of Healing Within Judaism” – was held this week at this week at the N.Y. campuses of the Conservative and Reform seminaries. Attending the conference were some 200 rabbis and Jewish communal workers – about 25 percent more than originally anticipated.
It was believed to be the first time that the three liberal Jewish seminaries jointly sponsored a project.
Those involved with Jewish healing say they see a widespread hunger among Jews coping with chronic illness who want to integrate spirituality with their medical treatment in order to heal their psyches as well as their bodies.
In eight Jewish communities today – from San Francisco to New York City – organized support groups and prayer services exist for Jews living with chronic illnesses and their families.
Similar groups are in the early stages of development in a dozen cities, including Minneapolis, Phoenix and Philadelphia, and another five communities have expressed interest.
Prayer services for healing are also being held with increase frequency in countless Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform congregations across North America.
Sometimes they are held around issues paining the entire Jewish community, such as the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Usually, they are conducted for a congregant suffering from illness, or from grief over the death of a loved one.
The prayer service at the N.Y. conference was based on the Jewish contemplative tradition.
Participants, for example, joined in the chanting of a “niggun,” a wordless tune that is rooted in Chasidic custom, and the singing was interspersed with instructions to relax and various blessing to give thanks.
The national center helps train local rabbis, chaplains, educators, social workers and laypeople to get support groups and healing services off the ground, and provides suggested prayers and texts for group study.
It also works to catalyze Jewish organizations to address this issue, and to move the concept of Jewish healing from the margins of the Jewish establishment into the mainstream.
When the national center recently sent out a “save the date card” for “Refainu” – “we heal” – an upcoming conference devoted to Jewish healing, slated for Summit, N.J., in January, 450 people – including rabbis from all four denominations – called to say they want to attend, though there is room for only 150.
Registration was closed even before the sign-up forms were printed. In 1997, the seminar is slated to be held in Los Angeles.
The goal, says Weintraub and others involved with the effort, is to help those in crisis find access to the resources that the Jewish tradition has to offer.
“Times of illness and death are spiritual moments for a lot of people. We want to help them find meaning and relevance at these points in their lives,” said David Hisrch, president of the national center, which is based in New York.
Hirsch’s interest in Jewish healing dates back to his earliest childhood memories.
When his mother was pregnant with him, she was diagnosed with cancer. She lived with that cancer for 15 years.
Part of a family of prominent Jewish philanthropists, she wanted desperately to find some spiritual succor to help her cope with being ill.
“She couldn’t find spiritual Jewish support,” Hirsch recalled, despite the fact that she was well-educated Jewishly.
Then someone gave her a book by the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, called “Science and Health.”
Hirsch took her young son to many of the Christian Science prayer and study meetings she attended, where she found the comfort she needed to fight the cancer.
Although his mother never converted to Christianity, Hirsch said it was sad that she could not find any points of access to Jewish sources.
The Christian Science book “is fine, but it’s not ours,” said Hirsh. “We have to open up our own book instead of others.”
In the Jewish community, there remains some resistance to the concept of spiritual healing.
“The word `healing’ means many different things” to different people, said Hirsch. “And there are Christological overtones to the term `healing’ in this culture.”
“But where some Christians talk about faith, we talk about hope,” added Weintraub in an interview at the National Center for Jewish Healing’s new headquarters, cramped in small rooms on the top of a Manhattan mansion owned by the N.Y. section of the National Council of Jewish Women.
“We talk of a lot about the moment,” said Weintraub. “We don’t talk much about the spiritual healing and the Jewish.
Despite reticence in some quarters, though, there is a remarkable upsurge in interest, he said.
Why now? There are several reasons, said Hirsch.
There has been “a tremendous failure of expectations with the medical systems,” he said.
Doctors are no longer viewed as infallible, he said, adding that with the adoption of managed care, physicians and nurses have less time to talk and counsel a patient.
In addition, people with terminal illnesses who until a few years ago lived only weeks or months are now surviving for up to 20 years and need help coping with the stress of illness in the long term.
There is an openness to spiritual development in North American culture at large, he said, and there is “a lot more interest in death. The image of `the grim reaper’ has given way to `the light.’”
Indeed, the concept that prayer can impact physical healing is gaining some credibility in the North American medical establishment, though it remains somewhat controversial.
A conference on “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine,” which will explore the healing practices of nine religious traditions, is being run by the Harvard Medical School in early December. The conference is being seen as an endorsement by the medical establishment of the connection between religious spirituality and the body.