In 1988 a doctor named Randolph Byrd conducted a study to determine whether or not intercessory prayers on behalf of other people were effective.
The findings were amazing. The patients who were not prayed for were nearly twice as likely to suffer complications than patients who were prayed for (Dale A. Matthews, M.D., and Connie Clark, "The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer," New York: Penguin, 1999, p.199-200). The study seems to indicate that prayers, even by a stranger for a stranger, can help in fighting disease.
This study has spawned a great deal of criticism by academic scientists who argue that it is not sufficiently rigorous or reliable. But I am more interested in the spiritual question. From a spiritual perspective, are prayers really that powerful? Is this how prayer works?
In Leviticus, the Torah talks about a disease: tzara'at, which is a skin disease. While many commentators choose to allegorize this disease, the simple reading of the Torah is that it is a physical disease. The Torah refers to this disease as fasah hanega (Leviticus 13:5), the disease is malignant. It is a malignant tumor that appears on the body.
Even though it is a physical disease, the response is a spiritual one. The person with tzara'at comes to the priest (kohein). The kohein decides on the proper treatment. He might decide that the patient needs to be quarantined or that the patient is physically fine, or that the patient is tamei and is therefore in need of a healing.
The Sefer ha-Chinukh (a work published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century) offers the following commentary: This commandment is teaching us that the reason the person with this disease is commanded to come to the kohein is that perhaps if he stands in the presence of the kohein -- a spiritual man -- the kohein will inspire him to meditate introspectively. This is also the concept behind the quarantine; it will allow the patient to examine his affairs unhurriedly and examine his deeds.
The Sefer ha-Chinukh is not saying that all illness comes from sin. The most righteous people in the world can be afflicted with the most terrible illnesses. Instead, he is suggesting that one way to treat illness is through spiritual reflection. The patient comes to the kohein, who can guide him on a spiritual path to health. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that the best way to treat sickness is with spirituality.
When I was in rabbinical school, we had classes on pastoral counseling. One time we had a class and the rabbi teaching the class gave us a situation. You walk into a hospital room and discover that the person has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. What do you tell the person? The rabbi then went on to say, "I'll tell you what you don't say. Don't say, 'Now is the time for tehillim (psalms). You have to pray, get all your friends to pray.'"
I understood my teacher's words to mean that he was suggesting that prayers don't work to change a situation. He was arguing that from a medical and psychological perspective, the prayers won't heal you. Instead patients would do better to focus their energy on other areas.
I have come to disagree with this teacher's approach. With the affliction of tzara'at the Torah is telling us that prayers can and do work. Spirituality can provide mental and physical health. Spirituality can be a legitimate response to illness. This is what the medical, scientific community is slowly beginning to realize. Study after study shows how increased religiosity directly correlates to increased physical health.
A study of 2,754 men and women in Tecumseh, Mich., found that men and women who attend church more frequently live longer than those who attend less frequently. A study in Georgia shows that those who attend church more often have lower blood pressure -- even if they are smokers -- than those who attend less often. A study of 91,000 people in Maryland shows that people who attend church at least once a week had significantly lower risk for coronary disease (Matthews and Clark, "The Faith Factor," p.20). All of these studies -- and there are many more studies -- look at how frequently people attend worship services to pray. The more often one attends worship service, the healthier you are likely to be.
There are scientific reasons for this. Prayer relaxes us. It reduces stress by reminding us to care for our bodies and to constantly seek renewal, by giving us a purpose in life, and by providing us with a sense of being loved.
But let's not ignore the spiritual possibilities as well. Let's not ignore the possibility that prayers simply work -- that they actually heal the disease. When facing illness we should encourage a spiritual response, as well as a medical response. A spiritual response embraces the physical touch. A spiritual response will encourage holding the patient's hand, hugging the patient, kissing the patient gently on the forehead.
I will not bore you with miraculous stories about people who have been cured through faith and prayer. There are too many to tell. There are also too many stories of people who had tremendous faith and prayed incessantly and yet were not healed from their ailment. That's not the point. The point is that just like a medical approach does not always work, and yet we try it anyway. So too, a spiritual approach does not always work and yet it should be tried.
A spiritual approach to our health uses the words of our prayers in order to ground us, strengthen us and heal us. This is what faith is about. It should be something we embrace at all times in our life. God forbid, if one falls ill, the words of our prayers would offer comfort and healing as well.
Miriam the prophetess was stricken with tzara'at. When her brother Moses saw this, he cried out, "O God, please heal her" (Numbers 12:13). When seeing illness, we too have that power. We too can together cry out, "O God, heal the wounded."
Excerpted from 'Fifty Four Pick-Up: Fifteen Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons' (Gefen, 2012).