Judaism has a long history of prayers and rituals for healing, ranging from biblical laws in the Torah requiring priestly oversight and sacrifice, to medieval folk practice, to today’s modern healing services.1 Healing rituals re-emerged in the 1980s with the growing disillusionment with modern medicine and its seeming indifference to suffering. The Jewish healing movement emphasizes that we are body and soul and that healing is more than just a cure. A common saying is: “if you want a cure, see a doctor.”2 The implication is that the movement offers care and therapy for the soul.
These Jewish healing rituals are typically led by rabbis, lay leaders, therapists, and/or alternative practitioners. They often include elements of psychology, mindfulness practice, spiritual songs, Kabbalistic mysticism, Jewish stories, and traditional Jewish liturgy. At the core of the traditional liturgy is the Mi Shebeirach prayer. This prayer is hundreds of years old and calls upon God’s compassion for people. It asks Adonai to restore strength, hope, and to heal both body and soul. It’s pretty amazing that spiritual leaders from the past had a paradigm for healing that addressed the whole person.
In traditional Judaism of long ago, prayers for healing were conducted by a rabbi or sage. But American Jews of today are more comfortable with an informal approach in which there is communal engagement that emphasizes member participation. This is especially evident in the Mi Shebeirach prayer because one does not say the prayer for oneself, but for others. Each person has equal value before the Creator, and the service emphasizes this unified approach to divine intervention.3
The communal approach also brings significant benefit to participants as they share their burdens with one another. This breaks the isolation that tends to come along with disease, suffering, chronic illness, and grief.4 The community is a built-in support group that understands and can relate at physical, cultural, and spiritual levels. This in itself can bring significant healing to the soul.
Identity is built through community. It is through the eyes of others that we glimpse a reflection of who we are.5 Often a person who has a chronic condition, pain, or mental illness receives a negative reaction from others because the people around them don’t understand what that individual is going through.6 Others will avoid the person who is suffering or take personally his/her inability to engage in life as before. Thus, illness brings multiple losses: physically, socially, role in the family, work, etc. This can lead to low self-esteem and a loss of identity.7
Consequently, the Jewish healing ritual offers an opportunity to build a new identity. It offers a pathway of redefining oneself by drawing upon Jewish resources and the Jewish context to find purpose and meaning in the midst of suffering. The negative reaction is replaced with a reflection from a group of people that offers acceptance and hope. The “sick” identity is thrown away as a person delves into his/her Jewish roots and finds a place in ancient tradition and an active local community.8 It doesn’t matter if the person has a previously developed sense of Jewish identity; they will still experience a huge benefit.
Many Jewish people today are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with the God language used in the healing rituals. A person’s Jewish experience is often more cultural than spiritual. Interacting with a personal God who listens to our prayers and cares about our daily affairs feels foreign to many Jewish people. Thus the Jewish healing movement is an opportunity to explore one’s spiritual beliefs and develop new ways of relating to God.
Participation in the Jewish healing ritual draws the individual into the spirituality of the Jewish people. It’s an opportunity to be introduced again to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and what it means to be in relationship with Adonai. The ancient prayers, songs, and sayings along with contemporary expressions call upon participants to engage with God in a way that can bring a whole new meaning to one’s life and purpose in the midst of suffering. The Mi Shebeirach prayer reminds us of God’s compassion and desire to see people made whole. The divine encounter in the healing ritual is a journey that can lead a person to a new understanding of who God is and how God relates to humanity.
It’s often through illness that we recognize our weakness and desperate need for the One who is greater than ourselves. Through pain and illness, we recognize our need to be healed on multiple levels. It stirs within us a longing for meaning in the midst of suffering and a profound need to connect with others and with God. The Jewish healing ritual points us to the One who can make us whole again. Whether you need physical/emotional healing or not, as you embark on your own journey into the divine, may you discover the God of compassion who desires to make us whole again.
“I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, creating the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.” (Isaiah 57:18–19)
1. Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, editors, Religion and Healing in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 231–252.
2. The Contemporary Jewish Healing Movement.
4. K. Charmaz, “Loss of Self: A Fundamental Form of Suffering in the Chronically Ill,” Sociology of Health and Illness (Wiley Online Library, 1983).
5. Gestalt Therapy: overview and key concepts, www.counselingconnection.com.
6. Charmaz, op. cit.