I have a friend who insists that G‑d is the only source of healing. According to him, medicine and doctors have no real role in maintaining or restoring health. In fact, he says, rabbis and blessings are more beneficial. Can this possibly be the Jewish position? Clearly only natural causes and cures have to do with health. Who is right?
You’re both right.
Torah sources are so abundant with the idea that G‑d is the source of health and healing, that it hardly needs to be elaborated. One source in the Torah itself is, “If you hearken to the voice of the L-rd, your G‑d, and you do what is proper in His eyes, and you listen closely to His commandments and observe all His statutes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the L-rd, heal you” (Ex. 15:26).
It is clear from here that there are spiritual forces underlying health and healing, and that harmonizing one’s life with G‑d’s Will is a path in well-being. Since this is so, those who devote their lives to doing His will are also positioned to heal, and one of the ways this works is through blessings or prayers on behalf of those who need healing.
However, over-emphasizing either G‑d’s or the righteous’ role in healing is possibly irresponsible in the case of the former, or possibly sacrilegious in the case of the latter. One who neglects his health in the name of relying on G‑d is being irresponsible, while relying on rabbis’ blessings rather than recognizing G‑d as the Healer is also a mistake.
A certain couple was not able to have children. They went to a great rabbi for a blessing. When the rabbi realized they relied on him more than on G‑d, he feigned requiring a great amount of money for his blessing. Dejected, the couple decided they didn’t need the rabbi’s blessing after all, and that they would cry out to G‑d instead. After they gained proper focus, the rabbi then bestowed his blessing gratis. Their prayer and his blessing were answered.
However, just as over-emphasis on spiritual emissaries of health is possibly heretical, over-emphasis on Medicine and doctors can also be heretical. The Talmud (Berachot 10b) relates that King Solomon had a special book of remedies that could be used to cure all sickness. When people abused this to rely only on the cures, forgetting G‑d’s healing power behind them, Hezekiah hid the book, an act that was approved by the Sages. Similarly, the Talmud (Bava Kama 85a) posits that G‑d permits the doctor to heal. What this means is that G‑d is the source of health and healing, and although he enables humans to act as His agents, we must not substitute them for G‑d.
Therefore, the true Jewish position is in the middle of the two extremes you express. One must pray to, and rely on, G‑d for good health, while making responsible effort to maintain it. And if one is ill, one must seek medical treatment, while praying that G‑d send good agents whom He’ll enable to heal. In fact, it’s customary before engaging in any form of healing, even when only taking medicine (and all the more so before going to the doctor or undergoing any procedure) that one request of G‑d, “May it be Your Will, O L-rd my G‑d, and the G‑d of my fathers, that this procedure be for me a cure”.