Healing to All Their Flesh
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Healing to All Their Flesh

Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Spirituality, Theology, and Health

Jeff Levin, Keith Meador, Jeff Levin, Keith Meador

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Healing to All Their Flesh

Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Spirituality, Theology, and Health

Jeff Levin, Keith Meador, Jeff Levin, Keith Meador

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About This Book

Healing to All Their Flesh asks us to step back and carefully rethink the relationship between religion and health. It does so by examining overlooked issues of theology and meaning that lie at the foundation of religion's supposed beneficial function. Is a religion-health relationship consistent with understandings of faith within respective traditions? What does this actually imply? What does it not imply? How have these ideas been distorted? Why does this matter—for medicine and healthcare and also for the practice of faith? Is the ultimate relation between spirit and flesh, as mediated by the context of human belief and experience, a topic that can even be approached through empirical observation, scientific reasoning, and the logic of intellectual discourse?8 pag e photo insert
The editors of this collection, Drs. Jeff Levin and Keith G. Meador, have gathered together the writings of leading Jewish and Christian theological, pastoral, ethical, and religious scholars to answer these important questions. Contributors include Richard Address, William Cutter, Elliot N. Dorff, Dayle A. Friedman, Stanley Hauerwas, Warren Kinghorn, M. Therese Lysaught, Stephen G. Post, John Swinton, and Simkha Y. Weintraub, with a foreword by Samuel E. Karff.

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THE CHAPTERS in this first section of Healing to All Their Flesh approach the interface of Judaism with health, healing, and medicine from a diversity of perspectives, emphasizing varied themes. Their rabbinic authors, as a whole, represent multiple denominational streams, including Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism. Still, common emphases are present, indicative of how a characteristically rabbinic approach to the subject of religion and health is fundamentally distinct from how Christian theologians, across the Christian spectrum, might choose to engage it.
Bill Cutter’s reflective and very personal essay draws on his own experiences many years ago in the patient role, interpreting what he went through in light of contemporary rabbinic and Jewish medical discourse on the body, on Jewish law, and on ethics and values, and of Rabbi Levi Meier’s writings on humanistic medicine. Richie Address provides a provocative take on critical existential issues, including regarding technology, autonomy, and spirituality, that arise in the lives of aging baby boomers as they begin to confront the limits of longevity and to negotiate issues of meaning. Dayle Friedman also explores aging, from a uniquely kabbalistic perspective, proposing Lifespan Judaism as a framework for older Jews experiencing both the losses and the opportunities for redemption that characterize the spiritual journey into old age. Elliot Dorff has crafted a comprehensive statement on how we can engage the halakhic (Jewish-legal) process in order to respond to contemporary bioethical challenges that may newly arise while remaining true to traditional Jewish perspectives on moral decision making. Simkha Weintraub’s warm and hopeful message is at once a lucid and depthful meditation on healing and healers, grounded in the rabbinic literature, and also a thoughtful guide for future scholarship on Jewish healing.
Throughout these chapters, the contributors draw on the body of rabbinic writing to develop original approaches to pressing issues: the experience of patienthood and of aging, the need to make medical decisions that are consistent with Jewish moral guidance, and the innate longing of all Jews for healing experiences that are honoring of a uniquely Jewish spirituality. This emphasis on turning to the rabbis—to Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash; to the responsa literature; to kabbalah and mussar; to creative contemporary writings—underscores a reverent valuation of the works of those who have come before, who have struggled with the same issues and efforted to reason through them in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Torah that God gave to Moses. This approach characterizes rabbinic methodology and richly informs these chapters.


Four Decades of Spiritual Progress

My religious journey in the world of health and healing has included taking care of other people, while paying attention to my own sometimes failing body. It had a lot to do with all of the bodies that make up what we call society. The journey began nearly thirty-five years ago when a young Orthodox rabbi visited me during the first of several lengthy hospitalizations, and features—in his efforts at bikkur cholim—some annoying but important religious questions. In 1978, I was already a fairly well-established administrator and junior faculty member at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, a husband of just a few years, and the father of a three-year-old boy. I was surely more worldly than the young rabbi, and a bit more polished professionally. But he was bolder and more straightforward in that naïve way that some good people have when they innocently enter worlds new and strange. I suppose the politeness of my Midwestern upbringing and the rigorous intellectualism of my college education were responsible for my perfunctory management of “spirituality,” and a little jolt of straightforward candor helped a lot. The young Orthodox rabbi was Levi Meier—a yeshiva graduate with ambitions to gain a PhD in psychology, and with intentions—to be fulfilled quite handsomely over the years—to remain a hospital rabbi who could draw on the deepest mysteries of the soul through religious faith and a slightly Jungian psychological tradition. (That tradition gets discussed somewhat in the new film A Dangerous Method.)
Rabbi Meier depended upon religious archetypes for his understanding of illness and human fragility, and he located some of these ancient patterns within Jewish classic texts. He shared his beliefs implicitly with all of his patients, and explicitly and intellectually with those whom he felt could understand his particular philosophical blendings. They were foreign to most of his Orthodox religious colleagues, while his religious view was foreign to many of his patients at the medical center.
In that early visit, Rabbi Meier asked me simply what God had to do with my recovery. I was shocked by the question and responded rapidly that this was “something I had to think about”; but I was surprisingly propelled into a thirty-five-year effort to answer the question. What follows here is some description of the journey that began that morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a large and powerful institution that somehow made way for the intimate journeys of vulnerable individuals. It is a journey that, to some extent, traces the “progress” of three decades and more that have transpired since that simple but fateful morning as I lay exposed to a thousand medical interventions, and only one self named Bill Cutter who presumably believed in one God. Adding to Rabbi Meier’s part in the undoing of my spiritual apathy is material that he himself gathered from leading thinkers of his time—and which he published at the end of the next decade.1
We have come through a lot of changes in the world of healing since hospitals throughout America began to think about the role of formalized spiritual attention to the patients who are being patched, detoxified, and rearranged. To assist in all of this medical work, an entire pastoral movement has sprung up with its own rules for qualification and its own goals and objectives. I have been involved in that movement almost since its beginning and have watched it formalize to a sometimes exaggerated degree.
I hope that readers of the collection of essays before us may be interested in at least one person’s view of the changes that have occurred over thirty-plus years—both within the life of one man, and within the general spiritual discourse that has been the cause and perhaps the result of my journey. (I suggest with some pride, that perhaps I have helped some of the changes along through programs that have been sponsored by my institution’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.)
Levi Meier’s innocent question to me in 1978 occurred at the beginning of his own effort to explore the healing value of the sick room visit, the religious meaning of lending a hand, and his effort to help people understand what they were experiencing as caregivers and care receivers. The floors of Cedars-Sinai have never been the same. Since Rabbi Meier began scurrying around those floors at breakneck speed, counseling countless volunteers who worked under his guidance, organizing programs with his loyal assistant, Paula Ven Gelder, and corralling young yeshiva children who bring shabbos (the Sabbath) into the hospital on Friday afternoons, Cedars-Sinai has entered into a grand plan of pastoral care to accompany its significant clinical contribution to the health of Los Angeles.
When Levi Meier first conceived the idea for his book Jewish Values in Health and Medicine,2 he was trying to conceptualize the relationship between the patient’s experience of illness and some of the health issues that were surfacing among Jews who cared about what our tradition had to offer. He seemed, I now see in retrospect, to be drawing upon an ancient Talmudic story in which only the proffered hand is able to elevate the ill person.3 His book was a decidedly humanistic effort—a way of looking at the “whole” of health delivery and the effect of that delivery on those who received it—but humanistic attached to a religious spirit. He was not the first to think in terms of this kind of humanistic medicine, but he was among the most insistent, and his book managed to bring together some fine Jewish scientific minds and learned religious leaders with the experience of patients who had benefited from that science and yet longed for Jewish inspiration beyond physical cure: a young woman who suffered early nearly fatal heart disease; a prominent and revered rabbi whose experience with bypass surgery was laden with Jewish reflection; a younger rabbi (me) who was determined to relate the writing life to the experiencing life. It was a unique gathering.
Of course there was a Jewish tradition that had addressed health and healing: Maimonides, and a few other classic Jewish medical figures (Assaf, for example) who provided principles and expectations for the healer’s role. Modern exemplars—like some of the authors in this book—had begun to think about medical ethics and Jewish responsibility. In the general domain, there was already a highly developed complementary medicine industry, and there had always been food advocates like Adele Davis and religious “outliers” like Christian and Jewish Scientists, homeopaths, and California optimists. But the mainstreaming of notions about spirit and body had not yet occurred, and no system for extraclinical healing was even being discussed; and men and women like Levi Meier pushed forward an agenda that by 2012 has come to dominate the health pages of daily newspapers, even as it has become the subject of countless essays in medical journals and conferences that are devoted to the healing that can lie behind cure. Of that distinction I shall speak further on, but surely the present volume you are now reading is a stunning example of that mainstreaming.
There is a kind of prescience to Rabbi Meier’s seemingly innocent collection of essays: a discussion of human dignity by Rabbi David Hartman,4 who has by now become legendary in the liberal Jewish communities of America by virtue of his entrepreneurship and his willingness to look at religious issues in new ways; an article by the significant Rabbi-physician Fred Rosner on the patient-physician relationship;5 Dr. Rosner’s reflections on how we as Jews must handle the AIDS epidemic from a moral and public policy point of view;6 and ethical reflections by the prominent Los Angeles neurosurgeon, Dr. Milton Heifetz.7
One of the most stimulating discussions in the entire book is represented by two essays on end-of-life care, and the emergence of hospice as a healing entity in Jewish life. It is a kind of dialogue between two major figures in American Orthodoxy. In that regard, the book represents an archival resource on one of modernity’s most interesting problems: How can the Jewish notion of “every moment of life being of infinite value” be harmonized with the reality of end-of-life costs to society, and the suffering that is probably extended for patients and family through the endless interventions that now—in the shadow of futility—can prolong a life beyond reasonable term. The dialogue—implied only—between Rabbi Maurice Lamm8 and Rabbi J. David Bleich9 in just this regard elevates Jewish Values in Health and Medicine to an essential document of its time and establishes the book as a harbinger of one of modernity’s key dilemmas. Rabbi Bleich’s conclusion regarding the establishment of hospice as being problematic—however well-intentioned—and Rabbi Lamm’s more existential and narrative way of looking at the issue are “tropes,” if you will, of Jewish thinking around a variety of issues in ethics and talmudic-halakhic discourse. When can one draw upon the existential experience of individuals to influence an entire value system?!
So using Rabbi Meier’s book as a touchstone for examining the progress that we have made over three decades, one sees that large issues like the presence of AIDS in the Jewish community, the way in which we have to handle end-of-life care, and our understanding of surrogate parenthood have blossomed into major questions that are not only still with us, but have become elaborated with new implications in our increasingly complex society and because of our increasingly problematic economic environment. The more intimate issues like patient autonomy, the struggle to find hope in the hospital room, and the companionship that seems to be swiftly disappearing from the doctor-patient relationship, continue to take on implications and to require the spiritual probing that have been exhibited in the diaries and poems of some of our great writers, and in the struggles of spiritual leadership to assist people on their healing journeys.
Which leads me back to Rabbi Meier’s question: What had God to do with my recovery in 1978–79? First, of course, came the repair of heart muscle, the opening of vessels, the gaining of physical strength. The bills paid, some perspective gained, and a strategy for finding a parking place at the hospital’s rehabilitation center finally calculated, my spiritual journey could begin.
I conclude my own essay by citing another written by Dr. Jerome Groopman, legendary Boston physician and writer, in The New Yorker over a decade ago.10 “God on the Brain” exposed Dr. Groopman’s management of the sometimes disruptive gap between faith and science. It is an essa...

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