Medical Miracles


So a rabbi pays a sick call to a man suffering from an intestinal disease. The man is cursing God for his afflictions. “Idiot,” says the rabbi. “You would do better to pray for mercy for yourself.”

Says the patient: “May God remove these sufferings from me and place them upon you.”

Ba-da bum.

No, this is not a leftover joke from Woody Allen’s old standup routine. It is actually an anecdote from the Talmud. And it received loud laughter from a standing-room-only crowd of priests, nuns, rabbis and Muslims attending a fascinating interfaith forum called Religion, Spirituality & Medicine sponsored by St. Vincents Hospital last week. Rabbi Simcha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the New York Jewish Healing Center, didn’t relate the Talmudic tale for yuks, but to illustrate the importance of visiting the sick in Jewish rabbinic tradition. He explained that the Bible is virtually silent on the issue of bikur cholim, or visiting the sick, but the rabbis of the Talmud turned the concept into a pillar of Judaism. He was one of four religious healers advocating the importance of faith and religion for patients and families at a time of serious illness.

The group also analyzed medical cases and discussed how each faith would respond to the patient’s problems.

The unique program was conceived by Dr. Alan Ostrow, associate chief of the hospital’s Hematology/Oncology department.

“There’s a simple explanation,” for the forum, said the boyish-looking Dr. Ostrow. “Our religious traditions have several millennia of experience in dealing with sickness and health and it would feel foolish not to take advantage of it. The greater familiarity with spirituality will lead to greater patient care.” Traditionally, medicine and religion have not been on good terms. “Religion has been repeatedly attacked, disparaged, ridiculed and held in contempt,” said Dr. Edwin H. Cassem, a Jesuit priest and chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. And psychiatry, he said, “is the most hostile because of Jewish founder Sigmund Freud’s anti-religious bias.”

Noteworthy, he said, is an informal survey he conducted showing that 95 percent of patients have strong spiritual ties, while only 40 percent of doctors do. Dr. Cassem said he strives to incorporate his patient’s religious background into his treatment, using the faith as a “coping resource.” Speakers also discussed the strong historical connection between medical healing and their faiths. Imam Yusef Hassan, staff chaplain at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center said that the Prophet Mohammed was a healer who comforted the sick believing that it calms the patient’s anxieties and helps overcome the disease.

Hassan told a touching story of personally comforting a 14-year-old Muslim boy suffering from cancer. The boy’s dying wish was for his mother to restore her faith in Islam, because if she continued to turn away, he would not meet her again in paradise. By continually talking about prayer, she finally returned, and the boy died happy. From the Catholic perspective, Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard University, cited Jesus’ role as a powerful healer to argue for equitable health care for poor people today.

In Mark 6, Jesus is beseeched by the rich leader of a synagogue to heal his dying daughter. Cox notes that since Jesus was a somewhat “disreputable and unauthorized healer,” it shows how desperate the father was for a cure, “something we all have experienced.”

But on the way to the dying girl, a destitute, catastrophically ill woman whose disease made her ritually impure, sneaks up to Jesus and touches his garment, and is healed. An angry Jesus finds the woman, but instead of rebuking her, tells her to go in peace. Then, Jesus heals the dying girl. “Jesus represents what the Hebrew prophets and Catholic moral theology has to say about equal health care for the poor and marginalized,” he said.

Underlying their concerns was the present economic state of health care in America. One audience member, internist Dr. Murray Berenson, complained that HMOs leave no time set aside for spiritual and religious healing. “The HMO plan says get them in and get them out,” he said. Cox said that corporate America is too concerned with profits — and not prophets. He urged religious institutions to organize themselves and join with the medical community to fight for spiritual care.

Rabbi Weintraub noted that the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly plans to focus on health care reform during the High Holy Days next fall. “The [spiritual] empowerment of patients depends on much more advocacy work,” he said.

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