Rabbi’s Weekly Message. Jan.12, 2022
The other day, a lovely and pious woman was talking to me about her pastor. She told me that the pastor is preaching that, “Jesus is my vaccine.” That set me to a serious bout of head-shaking.
Before I go any further, let me emphasize that my thought is not intended as a slam against Christianity. I could just as easily have spoken about the concentration of anti-vaccine sentiment in certain quarters of Orthodox Jewish society. I am quoting the pastor’s words, because, pithy as they are, they put the issue that I want us to ponder in high relief: If you are a person of faith, is medicine still necessary? Is resorting to medicine somehow an indication of weakness of faith? Or, in fact, is resorting to medicine honoring God, who creates us with the intelligence to study nature and devise cures for illness?
These thoughts are perennially important, but they are all the more urgent now, when vaccine resistance among a certain camp of people of faith is putting all of us at needless risk and is very likely a contributing factor in the needless deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.
In the passage that Jews read from the Torah, this shabbat, the 15th chapter of Exodus, we have an intriguing story about God and healing. The Israelites journeyed for three days into the Sinai and did not find fresh water. “They came to Marah and could not drink water from Marah, for it was bitter. Therefore, the place is named Marah.” – as a word of explanation, the word “marah” means, “bitter” -- The Torah story continues: “The people murmured against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?” He cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; he flung it into the water, and the water turned sweet.”
The conclusion to this tale of knowledge of the desert environment, marshalled for survival, includes the famous quotation in which God is called “your healer:” “If you really heed the voice of the LORD your God… all the sickness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the LORD your healer” (Exodus 15:26).
There are those who argue that this verse is precisely the Scripture that tells us to trust God rather than our own scientific conclusions. But this is most certainly not the way that our Jewish tradition has understood this passage, for over two thousand years. For us, this passage leads to the conclusion that God has shown us the importance of investigating the natural world and thereby to find cures for illnesses.
Consider the reference to God’s showing Moses the wood with medicinal properties, in the passage I have just cited. Even before the Rabbis began to interpret the Bible, our tradition understood this as the text leading us to revere the efforts of scientific medicine. One of the great authors of the Second Temple period, Yeshua ben Sirach, who lived about 2200 years ago, put the issue poetically:
1 Make friends with the doctor, for he is essential to you; God has also established him in his profession.
2 From God the doctor has wisdom, and from the king he receives sustenance.
3 Knowledge makes the doctor distinguished and gives access to those in authority.
4 God makes the earth yield healing herbs which the prudent should not neglect;
5 Was not the water sweetened by a twig, so that all might learn his power?
6 He endows people with knowledge, to glory in his mighty works,
7 Through which the doctor eases pain, and the druggist prepares his medicines.
8 Thus God’s work continues without cease in its efficacy on the surface of the earth.
9 My son, when you are ill, do not delay, but pray to God, for it is he who heals.
10 Flee wickedness and purify your hands; cleanse your heart of every sin.
11 Offer your sweet-smelling oblation and memorial, a generous offering according to your means.
12 Then give the doctor his place lest he leave; you need him too,
13 For there are times when recovery is in his hands.
14 He too prays to God that his diagnosis may be correct and his treatment bring about a cure.
15 Whoever is a sinner before his Maker will be defiant toward the doctor.
--The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, chapter 38
In the centuries that followed, The Rabbis, too, interpreted the Bible to show that we are meant to practice the art and science of healing, not to sit with folded hands and pretend that our passivity is a sign of faith. Concerning the law in Exodus 21:19—which we will read in two weeks—that a person guilty of assault and battery is obligated to pay for the medical treatment of his victim, the Rabbis commented:” Even though ultimately God is our healer, it is religiously proper for doctors to cure the sick, because they are thus doing the work of God. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma 85a). As our tradition developed still further, Maimonides, who was simultaneously a great rabbi and a leading physician, made this point clear with a telling analogy: “If a person eats to cure his hunger, do we say that he has abandoned his trust in God? Just as I thank God for providing me with food to sustain life, I thank God for providing me with that which heals my sickness.”
The argument that Jesus, or God, in the Jewish view, is your vaccine, is thus quite un-Jewish, if it is meant to say that God is the alternative to your vaccine.
Fortunately, this is a false dichotomy. Judaism, properly understood, never tells us to make our brains the opponent of our souls. Thank God for your brain. Honor God by using it.