The library recently received the new book Midrash & Medicine, edited by Dr. William (Bill) Cutter. I had the opportunity to speak with him and his colleague Michele Prince,Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health about this collection.
SFS: As a librarian, I’ve seen that a lot of books (and music) have come out recently that deal with healing and spirituality. What do you think is driving that movement?
BC: The broken environment of our society and the disappointment coming out of the 19th century/Enlightenment paves the way for interest in this movement. Ethnicity is less important in people’s lives and yet the call to Jewish tradition is still very strong. Spirituality and healing fill this niche. The individualism present in today’s culture also sets a role.
MP: The movement towards healing and spirituality fights against our overly connected, 24/7 culture, which provides few occasions to “turn off.” The explosion of global news of war, natural disaster, climate change, political unrest, and the divisions in our own nation force the search for courage and inspiration – a sense of the mystery of life.
SFS: We often hear the words “healing,” “health,” and “cure.” The meanings seem to overlap. How would you define each and how do they relate to each other?
BC: When I speak to audiences I argue that people are searching for quick “cures” when they go to the doctor’s office, but when their suffering has meaning beyond illness then healing is sought. Healing is when we seek for a “total relationship” between our values, our friends, ourselves, and our environments. Healing is “meaning making.”
MP: Many of us in the field of Judaism and health, including Bill, agree that we can be healed without being cured. Many live with chronic illness – in medicine, physicians and researchers attempt to shift what were once fatal diseases, such as some cancers, to diseases which allow for ongoing maintenance, such as some cardiac conditions or diabetes. In Jewish life, we pray for the healing of spirit and the healing of body – and search for the whole. Medicine – the provision of healthcare – once included spiritual values: service, altruism, compassionate care – and we are trying to improve the health of the healthcare system.
SFS: The title of your book is Midrash and Medicine, but the contents hint more of Midrash as Medicine. What is Midrash and what power does it have when it comes to healing?
BC: Clever question. The Jewish tradition of constant renewable interpretation SHOULD be a part of medical treatment. The self moves from cure to healing.
SFS: You also include articles on poetry and music. What place do they have in healing?
BC: Poetry forces caregivers and patients to look at their situations in new ways their language is innovative and it leads to innovative ideas.
SFS: I was surprised to see articles on death and loss; especially the very personal story by Eitan Fishbane about the sudden death of his young wife. Why did you choose to include these in the collection?
BC: Very good question. Eitan’s talent with narration and background in Jewish mysticism were potent partners in helping others with similar losses. The response in the book underscores this.
MP: So far, Fishbane’s is the chapter readers comment on most frequently.
SFS: Thanks to Bill and Michele for speaking to me about this, and to Adi Bodenstein for co-ordinating it.