This is something that I’m often asked about. Many Jews might even say that there is no such thing as Jewish Pastoral Care (ie, that it is a completely Christian concept).
The complete answer to the question is very complex, but I think (for myself, at least!) that I now have a bit more of a 25-words-or-less kind of answer that I can offer.
I recently reread some parts of what I think is the best book on Jewish Pastoral Care, Ozarowski’s To Walk in God’s Ways. . . . I’ve never been satisfied with his definition of Jewish Pastoral care. But, on reflection, I think I have developed a comfort with something close to his definition.
It’s hard (and I know I’ve been going on for more than 25 words now, but please be patient!!) to define Jewish Pastoral Care without (as Ozarowski does) first saying something about how Christianity defines Pastoral Care. The standard Christian approach sees four functions of the pastoral caregiver:
Jewish Pastoral Care isn’t much different, but as in many things between the two faiths, there is a real difference in emphasis (grace is a good example here; while we most certainly have a concept of grace in Judaism, it is not nearly as central to our faith as grace is in Christianity, nor does it mean exactly the same thing that Christians tend to assume it means).
So, what then are the real differences between Jewish and Christian Pastoral Care?
Jewish Pastoral Care is more community- (and less clergy-) centered
Jewish Pastoral Care is more presence- (and less healing-) centered.
Community – Whereas Christian Pastoral Care emanates out of the Christian Bible’s accounts of Jesus as healer, Judaism’s Pastoral Care emanates out of the (very detailed) practices of Bikur Holim (visiting the sick) and Avilut (mourning) enumerated in the Talmud and in the halakhic literature.
Jesus’ example teaches Christians that ministering to the sick and suffering is best done by a leader who has special skills in healing and who has a special connection to God. But the Jewish tradition has no such special place for a leader; all of the commands of Judaism fall just as much on a street sweeper as on a rabbi. So, too, with visiting the sick and comforting mourners – these are obligations that fall on the entire community.
That does not mean that a visit from a person’s rabbi might not have some special meaning to a sick person. But the heart of the obligation falls on the community.
Of course, in becoming more modern and more American, many of us Jews have lost some of the best that it is that comes out of our tradition. The emphasis on the community taking care of people – as opposed to clergy doing it – is one of those great things that some of us have lost.
I think the lesson that our tradition teaches us is that we (who are professional pastoral caregivers) should focus on activating the best that is in our tradition. That is, we should seek to focus our energies on activating community resources to care for people, as opposed to trying to provide all care directly. In practical terms, that could mean focusing our energies on recruiting – and training – volunteers to care for the sick and suffering.
Presence – The most central text for Jewish Pastoral Care is God visiting Avraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1). The tradition understands this as God visiting a sick Avraham to comfort him in his illness. God does not here – as Jesus does in so many Christian stories – bring any special kind of healing; rather, God’s mere presence is what provides comfort. In fact, the tradition understands God’s presence here as specifically a silent presence; that is, there are deep roots in the Jewish tradition for understanding mere physical presence – without any actions or speach – as being of a comfort to a sick person.
So, bottom line, I guess I have not provided a 25-words definition of Jewish Pastoral care. And, my actual Pastoral Care theology is much more complex and detailed than what I have presented here. But, it is useful to me to be able to understand the difference between the Christian and Jewish approaches as being framed by these two areas – 1) community vs. clergy centering, and 2) presence/comfort vs. healing centering.