Herbs, acupuncture, amulets, crystals, touch therapy, creative imagery and other alternative treatments are increasingly being used to treat everything from lower back pain to irritable bowel syndrome to AIDS.
In fact, in 1994, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that more Americans seek health care from alternative medicine practitioners than from primary care physicians.
But is alternative medicine sanctioned by Jewish teachings?
Two physicians, a psychiatrist and a rabbi, discussed the question last month as part of the seventh annual International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in Burlingame.
According to physician and author Fred Rosner, modern alternative treatments reflect ancient Jewish healing practices; Jews often used amulets, for instance, filled with herbs, roots and written prayers to ward off evil spirits and disease. Some Jews, including patients of Rosner's, still wear amulets today.
Jewish teachings indicate than an amulet is proven only after it has "cured three people, or one person three times," said Rosner, of Queens Hospital Center in Queens, N.Y. As for his own take on alternative treatments, Rosner said that "as a preventive they're OK, but as therapy, they're not so good."
A Jewish approach to alternative medicine should include both prayer and traditional medicine, he said. Talmudic writings warn that faith alone should never usurp traditional medical care as the primary healing tool.
"Patients can't rely on divine intervention. It's a supplement, not a substitution," Rosner added. In fact Rosner believes that faith in any therapy can have a "placebo effect."
Psychiatrist Leonard Zegans, professor of psychiatry and director of education at UCSF Medical Center, also acknowledged that "spiritual and emotional factors affect health."
For that reason, prayer, chanting, charms, crystals and other alternative treatments that address diet, lifestyle and state of mind can have medical benefits.
"Negative images can be perceived as threats to our security. They have a profound effect and can affect the health of humans," Zegans said.
Maimonides himself wrote that the mind and body can't be separated. Zegans quoted the Jewish thinker as saying that "joyful news should be around the sick."
With the current trend toward managed care, physicians have less time to spend with patients, less time to consider such mind-body factors as spiritual contentment and stress. Zegans theorized that this lack of time, as well as the medical establishment's lack of success with chronic conditions, has set the stage for the new prominence of alternative treatments.
Physician Martin Rossman was trained in traditional Western medicine but has practiced acupuncture for the last 23 years. He is the founder and director of the Collaborative Medicine Center and co-director of the Academy for Guided Imagery, both in Mill Valley.
After seeing a film of a man having part of his lung removed with only needles as anesthesia, Rossman became fascinated with the ancient healing method.
"Yes, evidence [about the usefulness of acupuncture] is anecdotal and more research should be done, but 10 million anecdotes is a lot, especially when they're all pointing in the right direction," Rossman said.
While there was palpable cynicism among the audience of physicians toward alternative treatments in general and their compliance with Jewish law specifically, Rabbi Meir Sendor, of the Young Israel congregation in Sharon, Mass., told the group that prayer "can have direct somatic impact" and is considered in the Jewish tradition to be therapeutic.
"Illness is solipsistic, self-absorption leading to neurosis," Sendor said. "Healing involves a shift to The Other, a shift to God, who is more inside us than we are in ourselves."