A Wisconsin couple was sentenced to jail time on Tuesday for failing to seek medical attention for their ill daughter, renewing a debate in some circles over whether states should allow parents to practice spiritual treatments.

The parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were ordered to spend 30 days in jail each year for the next six years and were placed on 10 years' probation. Mr. Neumann, 47, and Ms. Neumann, 41, who live in Weston, in central Wisconsin, had been convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in August.

Their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, 11, died from untreated diabetes on March 23, 2008, the authorities said. When the girl became ill and could no longer walk or talk, her parents prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor, prosecutors said…

Experts said there had been at least 50 convictions in the United States since 1982 in cases where medical treatment was withheld from a child for religious reasons

-October 7, 2009, New York Times1

The truth is that this item is a throwback to old news.

In the plague year 1623, one reverend was posed the question of whether it is right to seek refuge from the plague. He answered: "The very best course is not to flee the plague…fleeing the plague is wrong because they do so from 'dissidence' and a lack of trust in G‑d's Providence….2"

Now, I may not be popular for saying this, but it seems like the good reverend has a point. One either believes in Divine Providence, or one does not. If G‑d saw fit to inflict illness upon someone, who is mortal man to disagree? To seek a cure is necessarily to assert that somehow G‑d got it wrong. To seek a cure from a doctor of flesh and blood just adds insult to injury, crediting more healing power to a created being than its Creator.

Some Bible-perusing reveals a confirmation of this point by G‑d Himself!

"See now that it is I! I am the One, and there is no G‑d like me. I cause death and grant life. I strike, but I heal, and no one can rescue from my hand.3"

G‑d's position on medical intervention could not be clearer. He's the only physician you should be seeing. (Indeed, this was the position adapted by the Karaites and other Jewish sects who rejected the oral tradition of Torah.)

And yet, in practice, Jewish law allows, encourages, and even obligates4 one to see a doctor upon falling ill, and to make use of man-made medicine and technology for recovery.

We do not say, "G‑d has struck; will the physician then go and heal?5"

And in the case of plague, Jewish law6 takes the opposite position of the aforementioned religious view: "One ought to flee the city when there is a plague in the city… It is forbidden to rely on a miracle and to endanger oneself in any other similar matter."

But how does the theology add up?

G‑d's Agents

The simple answer is the one offered by the school of Rabbi Yishmael, who taught7: "From the verse, 'He shall provide for his cure,'8 we learn that permission is granted to physicians to heal."

This verse is more than just the scriptural source for G‑d's consent to practice medicine; our Sages see it as His mandate to doctors to engage in curing, rendering doctors G‑d's agents of healing.

(Indeed, according to Jewish lore, every doctor is accompanied by an angel of healing, and as one story has it, the more capable the doctor, the more capable is his angelic associate.)

As the following Midrashic tale illustrates, G‑d's sanction of doctors includes an obligation for patients to seek healing, in keeping with common sense.

Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva were once walking through the streets of Jerusalem accompanied by another person. They encountered a sick man.

He said to them, "Rabbis, tell me how I can be cured."

They replied to him, "Do such and such until you are cured."

He asked them, "Who afflicted me?"

They replied, "G‑d."

The sick man responded, "You have interfered in an area that is not your domain. G‑d afflicted me, and you advised me how to be cured. Are you not defying G‑d's Will?"

The rabbis asked him, "What is your occupation?"

He replied, "I am a farmer; this is the scythe in my hand."

They asked him, "Who created the vineyard?"

He replied, "G‑d."

They said to him, "You interfere in an area not under your domain. G‑d created it and you are cutting its fruits!"

He responded, "Do you not see the scythe in my hand? If I did not plow, trim, fertilize and weed, nothing would grow."

The rabbis said to him, "Foolish man, have you never heard the verse (Psalms 103:15), 'As for man, his days are like grass'? Just as a tree without weeding, fertilizing, and plowing will not sprout, and after sprouting, without water and fertilizer, it will not live but will die, so too with the human body; the drugs and medication are [like] fertilizer and the doctor is [like] the farmer.9"

While the traditional sources for permitting medical practice have been identified, the Divine line of reasoning seems elusive.

Giving healing power to a creature is to give rise to an illusion: that man and nature possess powers of their own. That in certain areas of life they are more capable than their Maker. Does not the practice of medicine suggest that G‑d giveth and Man (can) taketh?

(Indeed, it is out of this concern that certain religious institutions resisted the advance of science, worried that scientific discovery would replace faith in G‑d with faith in Man.)

So why allow for this false impression to exist? What's the point of confusing simple homo sapiens like us? Healing power should have been kept in the family (G‑d, angels and other Divine entities). G‑d's management of, and power over, every detail of existence would then be unmistakable.

But this plays into the purpose of creation itself, which, according to Jewish mysticism, is so that mankind can reveal the unity of G‑d in all of existence. If it were obvious that G‑d is the essence of all, mankind would be rendered useless, even jobless (shudder).

The façade is thus a fundamental tool and method of creation, the curtain on Divine reality which man is called upon to throw open.

G‑d shared with us the power to heal, and even to create (by reproducing), not to lead us on, but to prod us to recognize that nature is really nurtured by G‑d himself.

We show our appreciation for these gifts of G‑d when we pull the curtain on G‑d's show, promoting and presenting it to the widest audience possible.

Healing, Not Despair

This brings us to our final point, expressed by the Rebbe in a letter to someone who was ill.

"Surely you are aware of the comment of many of our great Rebbes on the ruling of the Sages – "'He shall provide for his cure'; from these words we derive that physicians have been granted permission to heal" – that the only mandate that doctors have been granted is to heal [and not to induce despair].10"

As the following story suggests, the physician's domain is diagnosis, not prognosis.

A young girl once went along with her grandparents to meet the Rebbe. During their meeting, she asked the Rebbe for a blessing for her eyesight, as her optometrist had told her that her vision was poor and would continue to weaken. "Who said?" the Rebbe asked. She repeated what the doctor had said. "Who said?" the Rebbe asked her again. Thinking that the Rebbe had not heard her, she repeated the doctor's prognosis a third time. When the Rebbe asked her once more, "Who said?" she understood what the Rebbe was implying and remained silent. The Rebbe then gave her a blessing.

(Thank G‑d the girl's vision never worsened, and her prescription never altered.)

Consider this related anecdote:

A man once wrote a letter to the Rebbe. In the letter he mentioned the prediction of a meteorologist. While writing the letter, he struggled to come up with a Yiddish term for meteorologist. He finally decided on "the weather navi [prophet]."

In the Rebbe's response, he highlighted the word "navi" and quoted a Talmudic passage11 which reads, "After Rebi's passing, prophecy ceased to exist in the world…"

In sum, doctors (and all experts, for that matter), are neither judges nor prophets; they may present their findings, but ultimately it is G‑d who presides over the future.

What's in It for Me?

The Rebbe advises a patient: "It is clear that a physical ailment needs to be treated by improving one's spiritual health as well12. When one improves the vitality of the soul, this has the effect of improving the vitality of the body and aids in the effectiveness of the medical treatment…13"

The Rebbe advises a doctor: "I am sure that you follow the practice of many G‑d fearing doctors, in advising patients who seek your advice regarding a health problem that it is appropriate to also effect a healing of the soul…14"

That just about that sums it all up.