Medicine and doctors have been the subject of Jewish humor and part of our cultural identity, whether we are comfortable with it or not. An example: Someone asks, “When, exactly, does the moment of life begin?” The answer: “The fetus is not considered viable until after it graduates from medical school.” I recently received a holiday card with two little girls—one Christian and one Jewish. They are comparing holidays.“We have a Christmas tree and baked ham,” says the little Christian girl “So, we have a menorah and potato pancakes,” responds the Jewish girl. “We have Santa Clause,” replies the first, to which the little Jewish girl replies, “And when he gets sick, I bet he calls a Jewish doctor.”
What is it about the connection between Jews and medicine? Three years ago, the Yeshiva University Museum in New York featured an exhibit entitled: “Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960.” The exhibit’s curator, Josh Feinberg, explained the purpose and highlights of the exhibit.
“There are so many reasons Jews and medicine have such a long, illustrious history, ranging from the purely practical to the ideological,” said Feinberg. “Practically, medicine was a way for Jews to gain acceptance, prestige and make a living. It’s one of the few professions that remained accessible to Jews when many other doors were closed. But, on an even deeper level, the Jews have always placed a special, immutable emphasis on the value of human life – as it says in one Talmudic tractate, ‘If you save one life, it’s as if you saved the whole world.’”
While Jewish tradition teaches that “human life is of infinite value, and that the preservation of life supersedes almost all other considerations,” there are numerous admonitions in the Torah, and in later rabbinic writings, that challenge that supposition.
According to Rabbi Mark Washovsky, “The Torah never explicitly commands us to practice medicine, and some biblical passages are highly critical of physicians and those who resort to them. This negative attitude stems, in large part, from the fact that, for much of its history, medical science was not far removed from the arts of black magic, which the Bible condemns in no uncertain terms.”
In ancient times, medicine and religion were closely connected and the priests were the custodians of public health. “The Talmud suggests that human beings should instead have learned to seek G-d’s mercy rather than turn to medicine. Perhaps,” Washovsky continues, “this is what the Mishnah has in mind when it declares in no uncertain terms that ‘the best physician is deserving of hell.’”
But this situation was ultimately and irrevocably changed because Jews came to regard the physician as the instrument through whom G-d could affect the cure. Jewish physicians, therefore, considered their vocation as spiritually endowed and not merely an ordinary profession.
“After all,” Washovsky continues, “if the Torah itself sees the preservation of life as its highest goal,” then we are expected to do what is necessary, including the practice of medicine, to protect our lives and the lives of others. “Whatever its textual source, the status of medicine as mitzvah is unquestioned in Jewish religious thought; ‘whoever delays its performance is guilty of shedding blood: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ (Lev. 19:16).”
That ideal informs the belief that providing health care is an obligation for the patient and the doctor, as well as for society. The first well known Jewish doctor and scholar, Moses Maimonides, listed health care first on his list of the 10 most important communal services that a city must offer its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot IV: 23). As a result, most Jewish communities implemented systems to ensure that all their citizens had access to health care. Doctors were even required to reduce their rates for poor patients and, when that was not sufficient, there were communal subsidies.
As a result, the practice of medicine became a chosen livelihood. Added to the fact that, for most of the Middle Ages, the Jews were excluded from almost all other occupations, there was yet another consideration. Throughout history, we Jews have had to take care of our own. We set up organizations and systems to meet the needs of our community. When Jews began immigrating to the United States, they did the same thing. “Jews wanted to show they would not be a burden on society,” said Feinberg. And when Jewish students were faced with strict “unspoken” quotas when applying to medical schools, Jews created Jewish institutions such as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
“But Jewish medical institutions were not just built as a reaction to anti-Semitism,” said Feinberg. “It would be a grave mistake to think these institutions were only built to help and cater to Jewish needs. Jewish contributions to the medical field have always been marked by an explicit determination to better society as a whole.” Jews have continued to contribute to medicine both by the creation of new medical concepts and by the transmission of medical knowledge.
So, while the jokes may continue, the Jewish commitment to medicine seems to clearly reflect a higher commitment to the well-being of society. Α
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.