As this week’s Torah reading demonstrates, religion and medicine have a very long association.
Many times in the Bible are illness and disease referred to. Where and why they occur is a major Biblical concern. So is how to respond if they become manifest. Fasting, repentance and prayer all help. So does the saying of psalms.
In the Talmud (Shevu’ot 15b) the sages say that Psalm 91 ("Yoshev B’Seter") is "a psalm against evil occurrences", which is why many Jews have added Psalm 91 to their prayers during the long and difficult period of Covid-19. The psalm assures us that even when there is demonic piercing pain one can rely on God’s protection.
Yet though the Talmud calls Psalm 91 a psalm against evil occurrences, this term is not spelled out in detail. It seems to equate with the strange category of "acts of God", indicating natural rather than man-made disasters.
"Acts of God" is a technical legal term, not meant literally as Divine intervention in history, but denoting an unforeseeable event which is outside human control and probably not preventable.
Yet in a theological sense we could say that ultimately everything is traceable to God (Amos 3:6). Events don’t just happen. Christian scripture says, echoing the Talmudic tractate Taanit 7a, that God makes the sun rise and sends rain "on the righteous and the unrighteous alike" (Matt. 5:45).
The lawyers have not yet reached a consensus as to whether the pandemic, though it is certainly "an evil occurrence", is to be deemed "an act of God".
A legal friend has kindly drawn my attention to cases in contract law involving the notion of Acts of God, which are viewed as exclusively the consequence of natural causes of an extraordinary nature which cannot be anticipated or provided against by a party seeking to rely on it.
Whether or not the pandemic comes under this category the crucial thing is to maintain one’s faith in God.
This coming Shabbat's Torah reading also begins with something that seems rather obvious – "This is the law of the leper at the time when he is to be cleansed" (Lev. 14:1).
Actually this procedure is not so obvious at all. It makes an assumption – that the leper wants to be cleansed. It then says that in order to cleanse him there is a set procedure. How about a person who does not, for whatever strange reason, want to be purified?
Don’t ask why a leper should be so stupid as to want to keep their status quo. People have their own psychology. Illness of any kind is no blessing in the opinion of most of us, but there are individuals who are exceptions to the rule.
The assumption the Torah makes is that any normal person wants to be better. It makes a second assumption, that healing is not only desirable but possible. From the Torah point of view, any illness, physical or mental, must have a cure somewhere, and it is the task of the medical profession to find it.
Judaism never said, as do certain other religions, that illness was part of God’s design and human beings had no right to intervene. We honour the physician because they are doing God’s work.