Torah 57: Medicine, the Sage’s Wisdom and the Tikkun of Eating – part 2

Rav Shagar • 2008

Rav Nachman describes how God’s speech creates the world and from it also the power of healing. Similarly: postmodernism claims that medicine – and so, too, science – are dependent on language and shaped by it. A classical modern conception describes science and medicine as a collection of facts, grounded in and acting by objective methods. Postmodernism, on the other hand, would argue that their accuracy and effectiveness depend on the rules of a particular social game, and it is only within that framework that they can play their roles.

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As modern people accustomed to using Western medical methods, how are we to understand Rav Nachman’s claim that medicine heals through the power of Torah? The matter must be explained through a Kantian and neo-Kantian philosophical approach, which emphasizes that the world we perceive is in fact shaped subjectively by our ways of knowing and sensing. With this approach in mind, we find that the world of phenomena (unlike ‘the thing itself’) exists in our consciousness. Without the mediation of our perceptive consciousness - with the order and rules that it imposes upon our reality - the world ‘as is’ would appear to us as inexplicable chaos.

According to this approach, biology is not a ‘photograph’ of the human body nor does modern medicine inform us of the physical, chemical activity inside. Both of these sciences are only the results of our understanding of reality: therefore, they not only reflect reality, but also shape it. For example, the Neo-Kantian philosopher would say that were it not for the demythologization of the world - namely, if we did not come to the recognition of the world as the consequence of a series of natural causes - modern medicine would not have been created.

This is precisely where Rav Nachman enters the conversation, embracing an approach that is very distant from Western medicine (but somewhat similar to a Neo-Kantian one): that sickness and medicine are tied to spiritual illnesses (as expressed in the image of angels bringing the power of healing to grasses), and as a result, the ‘Western’ medicine that ignores these spiritual ills cannot be effective.

A post-modern perspective may help us explain Rav Nachman’s approach differently. The Neo-Kantian approach - which is perhaps the farthest in denying the objectivity of the world - argues that there is a ‘correct’ way to understand the world: through reason. Postmodernism, on the other hand, claims that there are many ways to approach the world - and no logical process to choose between one or the other. In other words: perception of the world - even scientific perception - depends on the local social context from which one operates. Or, as Wittgenstein would explain: it is dependent on the particular language game in which one is a player. If so, a scientific perception is not more ‘correct’ than a religious one; they are two different language games, with different rules regarding what may or may not be uttered in their framework.

How does this perspective shed light on the current text?

Rav Nachman describes how God’s speech creates the world and from it also the power of healing. Similarly: postmodernism claims that medicine - and so, too, science - are dependent on language and shaped by it. A classical modern conception describes science and medicine as a collection of facts, grounded in and acting by objective methods. Postmodernism, on the other hand, would argue that their accuracy and effectiveness depend on the rules of a particular social game, and it is only within that framework that they can play their roles.

Let us take aspirin as an example: that aspirin is classified as a ‘treatment’ - a label reliant on a scientific trial - is a notion that in another society or conception would not be relevant at all. This is true regarding the patient as well: the aspirin’s effect relies on the patient’s belief in particular assumptions, ones that are grounded in language. For example: the statement “I feel good” has very particular resonances that depend on the language of that utterance. In another language, this ‘biologically’ understood statement - translated in common terms as “I feel good” - can in fact be communicating something else. For instance, ‘I feel good’ might signify ‘I am not feeling pain’ in one society, or ‘I am feeling whole and at peace’ in a second society.

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