Jewish Medicine

Medical skill or miracle?

Study finds doctors take supernatural into account
By Chanan Tigay

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — In the 1980s, when Rabbi Leonard Sharzer was still working as a plastic surgeon, he treated a patient suffering from a debilitating neurological disease. Sharzer and his colleagues agreed that the man wasn’t long for this world.

“It was clear to everybody taking care of him that there was nothing more that could be done,” said Sharzer, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2003. “His family expected this. We didn’t know how long he would survive. He was on a downhill course and the outcome was clear.”

But then something strange happened.

“He just lingered and lingered and lingered for six or eight weeks — and he got better,” Sharzer recalled. “There was no way to explain that medically.”

“Looking back on it today,” Sharzer added, “I think I probably would have called it miraculous.”

As it turns out, Sharzer is not alone: According to a new survey, the majority of American physicians believe in miracles.

The study, carried out by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, found that 74 percent of U.S. doctors believe miracles have happened in the past, and 73 percent believe they can occur today.

Among Jewish doctors, 88 percent of Orthodox respondents said they believed miracles have transpired, as did 53 percent of Conservative respondents, 46 percent of Reform respondents and 29 percent of those identifying as culturally Jewish.

The numbers were approximately the same when the doctors were asked if miracles can occur today.

Like Sharzer, 55 percent of physicians surveyed said they had seen treatment results in their patients that they would consider miraculous.

The study also found that 55 percent of the doctors surveyed believe medical practice should be guided by religious teaching, and nearly 40 percent are convinced that the biblical miracle stories — such as Exodus’ parting of the Red Sea — are to be taken literally.

Among Jews, 53 percent of Orthodox doctors believe literally in the biblical miracles, as do nearly 12 percent of Conservative respondents, more than 4 percent of Reform and 2 percent of culturally Jewish respondents.

According to Alan Mittleman, the Finkelstein Institute’s director, the study indicates that the conventional sociological wisdom holding that religious belief declines as a person’s scientific education grows is false.

“The big picture was that doctors are really not less religious than their patients,” he said. “I was somewhat surprised by the overall religiosity of the physicians.”

The survey of 1,087 physicians — Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and 253 Jews — also found that 20 percent of Jewish doctors believe supernatural events or acts of God frequently influence treatment outcomes. Among Catholics that number rose to 35 percent, and jumped again to 46 percent among Protestants.

Among the Jews surveyed between Dec. 17-19, 94 identified themselves as Conservative, 93 as Reform, 49 as culturally Jewish and 17 as Orthodox. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Orthodox Jewish doctors, the study found, were closer to their Christian counterparts with regard to supernatural views than they were to Conservative and Reform doctors.

“Reform and Conservative Jewish physicians seem to be more focused on the medical aspects and their potential for outcome,” said Glenn Kessler, co-founder and managing partner of HCD Research, a private market research company in Flemington, N.J., that deals largely with pharmaceutical companies.

“Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Protestants appear to be more open to non-medical reasons for outcomes — supernatural, unexplained reasons.”

Sharzer, who as a surgeon performed reconstructive operations on people who had been injured in accidents, recalled a patient who arrived at the hospital in critical condition.

“He had a whole group of friends and colleagues come into the hospital, and they began chanting around the clock for three or four days, maybe a week, while he was in extremely critical condition,” Sharzer said.

“When he started to wake up he was aware that they were doing it. From an anecdotal standpoint — patients who are in very dire straits, their own faith and faith in their family certainly can have a beneficial effect.”

He added, “The longer you are in practice the longer you can see things that you can’t explain on the basis of your own actions and your own abilities.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |