Body, Soul And Midrash
Tue, 02/08/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
Contributors to “Midrash and Medicine” include physicians, rabbis, social workers, psychologists and philosophers.
Contributors to “Midrash and Medicine” include physicians, rabbis, social workers, psychologists and philosophers.

I n shuls everywhere, of all denominations, the “Mi Sheberach” prayer is said regularly, naming individuals in need of healing. The prayer itself and the way it is said may differ from one community to the next. The late Debbie Friedman, for instance, set the words to music that is widely known and sung. Some people approach the bima with “long lists of names inside their hearts,” while others have handwritten lists in their pockets, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, explains in an essay, “A Midrash on the Mi Sheberakh.”

The traditional prayer is for a refuah shelemah, a complete recovery, for the healing of body and the healing of spirit. But Rabbi Adler, director of Jewish student life at Santa Monica College Hillel and director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism, asks, what about those people who have ailments, as she does, that will never be cured or completely healed? What about people who linger at the border of being healthy and ill, who will deal with medicines, doctors, medical crises for the rest of their lives?

Rabbi Adler offers her own midrash, or interpretation of the prayer, pointing out the need for a new version modeled upon the original. She writes about “asking God for the strength to persist even in the face of challenges that may seem insurmountable. Such a prayer might ask that we be granted the courage to continue in life even as we face the reality of our death; to rage and to praise, to bless and to curse, to accept and to reject diagnoses simultaneously.”

For Rabbi Adler, creating new prayer is a liturgical form of midrash. Her essay is one of 20 in a new book, “Midrash and Medicine: Healing Body and Soul in the Jewish Interpretive Tradition” edited by Rabbi William Cutter (Jewish Lights). The book was inspired by a conference combining rabbinic texts, contemporary storytelling and the interpretive process, where Debbie Friedman, who was present, created a healing song with another musician. As one contributor, Rabbi Eric Weiss, writes, the combined topics of midrash and medicine represent “the many ways in which the rabbi, physician and patient share their narratives, individually and together, none knowing the end of their own individual or collective stories. All we know is this moment and our hopes for the future.”

The essays show, in different and creative ways, how midrash not only can be used to find new meaning in the biblical text — but also as a resource for healing, focusing more on spiritual rather than physical healing. Contributors include physicians, rabbis, social workers, psychologists and philosophers. There are pieces by Rabbi Richard Address, Eitan Fishbane, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, Thomas R. Cole, Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, Stuart Schoffman and Ruhama Weiss. Rabbi Norman J. Cohen points out that one objective of the rabbis and sages, in interpreting the text, is to find messages of hope.

Rabbi Cutter, professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has been affiliated for more than 50 years, writes, “Between every health professional’s experience and behind every caregiver’s constant attention to an ill family member is the need to move from the material and physical necessity of curing a particular malady to the deeper (or higher) purposes of their work, to make the move form ‘curer’ to ‘healer.’ And behind every ill person’s experience is the need to see the deeper significance of their experience with illness.”

The book stands out from other volumes of collected essays in its format. Each essay is paired with another and the two appear together; sometimes one makes reference to the other, creating a call and response. Some themes run through many of the essays, and readers will gain an understanding of the history and evolution of the Jewish healing movement.

One of Rabbi Cutter’s essays speaks of “therapoetics,” his work with poetry and patients and their families, in trying to make sense of experiences related to illness. He’s not advocating that physicians recite poetry while examining their patients. He writes, “I am suggesting that the physician pause an appropriate moment of composure where experience may be recollected poetically in the quiet between the deployment of the medical artillery involved in the clinical workday. Somewhere in that background resides the quartermaster corps providing food for the soul.”

His essay is paired with a piece by Rabbi Sheldon Marder, who reports on a project using Psalms, songs and stories with the residents at a nursing home in San Francisco. They prove to be powerful tools, as the residents, ill as they are, express longings for hope, faith and inner strength.

Another intriguing pair is Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the New York-based Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, who writes about metaphor and meaning in illness, and Stuart Schoffman, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. From personal experience with serious illness, he tells how metaphors, even mixed ones, helped him get thought rough days. He’s a fine essayist, who manages to tie in Zionism, cancer, the afterlife and hypochondria, as well as a Russian-born jokester who published a three-volume compendium of jokes in Hebrew in 1922.

Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, shares the most personal essay, an excerpt from his forthcoming book “Shadows in Winter: A Memoir.” He writes, in “Words in the Dark,” of his wife’s tragic death and his own experience of grief, which he shares with his 4-year-old daughter, who aches for her mother. This is a piercing meditation on loss by someone who is engaged in theological and existential questions in his professional life, and who now faces them in the most profound way. Linda Raphael, the director of medical narrative and humanities at George Washington University, offers a responsive piece, “Reflections on the Dark,” pointing out the complex meanings of some of his metaphors. And, she also places his writing in the context of the themes of the book.

In an introduction to the volume, Rabbi Cutter cites the two landmarks on either side of this work. The first is the work of the physician, philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides (who is invoked in many of the essays). He writes, “Whenever we think of healing in Judaism, we stand on the Rambam’s shoulders.”

The other is the effort in America to make health care available to more people. “Whenever we have hoped for healing,” he writes, “our current economic dilemmas have bedeviled us. My hope is that the spirit of Maimonides informs the aspirations of the American people to provide more physical cues and a fuller spiritual healing to more people.”