Jewish spiritual healing moves into the mainstream

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NEW YORK — Not long ago, the notion of prayer curing physical ills could be found mainly 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 in New York.

"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. We're trying to make sure that the spiritual dimension isn't neglected."

Last week, the National Center for Jewish Healing co-sponsored a conference with the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries called "From Where Will My Help Come?: An Academic Exploration of Sources of Healing Within Judaism."

About 200 rabbis and Jewish communal worker attended the New York conference.

Those involved with Jewish healing say they see a 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.

"I see a tremendous need and cry for it," said Rabbi Nancy Flam, a director of the S.F.-based Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and one of three Northern Californians at the conference.

Because the Bay Area launched the nation's first full-service Jewish healing center less than five years ago, Flam has enthusiastically watched as other communities have begun to follow suit.

"We were the pioneers," said Flam, who taught a conference session on talmudic texts related to healing prayer. "We provided the model."

Seven other communities now offer organized support groups and prayer services for Jews living with chronic illnesses, as well as their families.

Similar groups are in the early stages of development in a dozen cities, including Minneapolis, Phoenix and Philadelphia. Another five communities have expressed interest as well.

The national center helps train local rabbis, chaplains, educators, social workers and laypeople to launch support groups and healing services. The center provides suggested prayers and texts for group study.

It also catalyzes Jewish organizations to address this issue and to move the concept of healing from the margins of the Jewish establishment into the mainstream.

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 Hirsch, president of the national healing center.

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 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 as a Jew. 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 access to Jewish sources.

The Christian Science book "is fine, but it's not ours," said Hirsch. "We have to open up our own book instead of others."

Despite the recent upsurge in popularity, there remains some resistance to the concept of spiritual healing among Jews.

"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. "We talk a lot about the moment. We don't talk much about the afterlife unless someone brings it up."

Despite some reticence, Hirsch said, there is a remarkable upsurge in interest. One reason is "a tremendous failure of expectations with the medical system."

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.'"