I Can’t Pray For Healing

by Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler

This morning I received a text message from my Aunt Linda saying, “I am doing well… love being home after three weeks in the hospital and rehab.” I almost replied, as if on rabbi auto-pilot, “I’ve been praying for your recovery” but instead wrote, “I’ve been thinking of you a lot! You’re so strong!”

Some might argue that my aunt was able to recover from the infection in her hip replacement, surgeries to remove the new hip and clean the prosthesis, and to begin rehabilitation all over again because God heard the prayers of the many individuals and communities praying for her health and healing.  But then what about those who didn’t have the strength or courage to persist?  Those whose infections or diseases or disabilities pressed them past the point of healing? Did God deem them less worthy of renewed health?  Did their families and friends pray less zealously?

Aunt Linda replied, “well, you have been my inspiration.” Almost nine years ago (when I was 26), I was forced to completely re-learn how to function after a brain aneurysm ruptured in my cerebellum. In addition to the open-cranial brain surgery and five weeks in the hospital and rehab, there were countless outpatient therapies and doctors working tirelessly to nudge me in the direction of healing. There were also rabbis, ministers, chaplains, friends, and family praying for my recovery: my rabbinic school classmates held healing services around my hospital bed, friends placed notes in the Wailing Wall for me, and the silent prayers of my worried family circled me like a protective salve.

I am an ordained rabbi. I recovered and survived. People tell me quite frequently that I am “a miracle,” which makes me shudder. Though I appreciate the sentiment, the theological implications are abhorrent to me. Were I to accept that I am a “miracle,” I would also have to accept that the vast majority of 25-35 year-olds who die instantly from aneurysms are not. I do not want to be a miracle; I do not believe in a God who would select individuals based on unknown criteria and “allow” them to survive calamities. And I do not believe that I survived because God listened to the prayers of my friends and family.

I don’t know that prayer “works.” I know that prayer can elevate and inspire a community to action; I know that illness can heighten our awareness about the very tenuous and fragile nature of our human bodies.  In essence, prayers for healing can be transformative. But they’re not magic; I do not believe that prayers alone can heal. I don’t believe that healing is necessarily a complete return to life as it was before the accident/illness/disability. Healing requires coming to terms with life as it is now: life with struggle (and sometimes chronic pain or discomfort), and life with the memory (of what was). Healing requires work, strength, and courage. Healing is a partnership among body, spirit, and soul: between humanity and the divine, the individual and the community.

To tell Aunt Linda, “I’ve been praying for you” would be inauthentic, not because I wouldn’t pray for her but because I couldn’t.

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler is a former assistant director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.

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5 Responses to “I Can’t Pray For Healing”

  1. avatar

    Your theological reasoning is sound and logical. I would tend to agree, even as one with a relatively traditional God-concept, that it cannot be the case that those who “pull through” are favored by God, or have had more people praying for them, etc. That is ridiculous. Yet, I don’t feel that it follows that prayers for healing are in vain. Somehow, I am unable to believe that prayers for healing benefit only those doing the praying–despite my generally rationalist stance, I really do feel that putting love and positive energy out there, especially in the form of prayers directed at God, makes a difference. That difference may not always mean “healing” or “recovery”, or “survival”, but I think we must take seriously the possibility that SOMETHING happens, otherwise we are turning our backs on our Tradition, which affirms realities unseen and mysterious.

  2. avatar
    Leah Wolff-Pellingra Reply March 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    If we look to the words of Martin Buber, and accept his reasoning that God is in the moment when the I recognizes a You, the act of prayer gains new meaning. By articulating our prayer that a loved one will be healed, both the one who speaks the prayer and the one who heals in mind, body, or spirit become aware for a moment of the presence of God. Modern theology recognizes that the literal belief that we speak of in U’netaneh Tokef on Yom Kippur, that God will ordain who will live and who will die, reinforces the belief that healing is truly beyond our power and these decrees cannot be stayed through prayer. But the healing of the heart and spirit, those key pieces of our humanity that medical science acknowledge surpass our understanding, these can take comfort within the presence of HaMakom when we are faltering and afraid. Praying will not change our bodies and all of they’re wonderous parts. They open and they close, and we are thankful for that daily miracle. But, I know and I believe, that praying can give us strength to face our own challenges, and those of the ones we love, with humility and with the belief that we will be comforted under the wings of the Shechinah as we travel on our journey, wherever and whenever it may end.

  3. avatar

    Thank you for your clear and articulate denial of magical thinking. I wish I could remember who wrote this, but years ago I read a comment that accusing God of exercising omnipotence is inexcusable slander.

  4. avatar

    Thank you, Rabbi, for articulating exactly what I have felt all my life but have been hard-pressed to “explain.” This was a wonderful, insightful, and absolutely brilliant post!

  5. avatar
    Mary Ruth Andrews Reply March 4, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    I understand what you are saying, and I believe this, also. Whenever there was a tragedy like an jet crash or something where many people are involved, someone will express some sentiment such as, “By the grace of God we were saved, or angels were all around us”. I’ve always wondered about the people who didn’t survive. Wasn’t God with them, also? I believe that God is with all of us, to comfort us whether we live or die. If I didn’t die today, maybe there is something unfinished yet for me to complete.

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