Jews and Medicine

Metzora Tazria By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 2, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary

Our family seders always border on a medical convention. My sister, Hanna, who did not live to celebrate Passover with us this year, had three children, all of whom are doctors and all of whom married doctors (well, one is married to a veterinarian, but that’s close enough). The pattern is not an accident. Hanna was by training a nurse and her first husband, Calvin, was an obstetrician. In the mid-1950s, they settled in Vineland, New Jersey. Over the next 20 years, before his untimely death in 1974, he delivered half the babies born there, including the three Schorsch children. For both Hanna and Calvin, medicine was a calling which saturated the conversation around the dinner table. Their children grew up in the loving presence of medical paragons.

Though my wife Sally and I spent many a wonderful vacation in Vineland, the influence of Hanna and Calvin was not quite enough to offset the academic and Jewish interests which prevailed in our home. But now two of our children have married spouses in medicine, one who just entered an Ob-Gyn Practice and the other who will start medical school this fall. So this Passover as we gathered for the family sedarim, we were just two shy of having a doctor for each of the ten plagues.

The point of this introduction to my family is to ponder the remarkable affinity between Jews and medicine. I might have done so by referring you to a fascinating new book edited by Natalia Berger, Jews and Medicine: Religion, Culture, Science, which is based on the exhibit held at the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in 1995. Therein you would learn, for example, that in 1932, of the 52,000 physicians in Germany, 6,000 were Jewish and 2,000 more were of Jewish origin. In Vienna, the ratio was even more striking: of the 4,900 doctors, 3,200 had some kind of a link to Judaism (p. 167). More engagingly (I hope), my personal anecdote suggests the obvious: Jews continue to be attracted to medicine out of all proportion to their numbers in the population.

Many factors account for this long and fruitful romance between Jews and medicine, not least of which is the fact that European universities in the early modern period allowed Jews to study medicine, even as law and the humanities remained closed to them. Thus, as early as 1721, one Moses Salomon Gumpertz of Metz completed his medical studies at the University of Frankfort on the Oder. In the 19th century, the practice of medicine belonged largely to the private sector and afforded young “emancipated” Jews more opportunity than sectors still dominated by government control and anti-semitism.

My interest, however, goes deeper than the recent Jewish preponderance in the field or the long list of medieval rabbinic luminaries who served as physicians or the seminal role played by Jewish translators in the High Middle Ages who brought knowledge of Greek and Arabic medicine to the Christian West. I should like to argue that the very nature of Judaism as shaped by the Torah predisposed Jews to gravitate to medicine. My evidence comes from this week’s double parasha.

It is well known that the Torah endorses life as a supreme value. The title page of Ms. Berger’s book quotes the classic verse from the end of Deuteronomy (30:19): “Therefore choose life…” What is less appreciated is how this reverence for life pervades other aspects of the religious and social world envisioned by the Torah. Our parasha deals at length with the subject of impurity, a condition that excludes one from entering the precincts of the Tabernacle. “You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them (Leviticus 15:31).” Those to be excluded are the following: a woman who has just given birth, a person afflicted with a skin disease, a man who has emitted semen and a woman menstruating or discharging blood abnormally. Whatever comes in contact with them during their state of impurity is also rendered impure.

In his commentary to Leviticus, Professor Jacob Milgrom explains these and other sources of impurity in terms of death. They are either the antithesis of life, like spilled blood or a corpse or skin disease, or diminish bodily vigor, like the loss of menstrual blood or semen. The Torah’s system of human impurity is informed by its uncompromising espousal of life. Any state or change that is deemed to contribute to the proximity or onset of death is feared as a ritual contaminant. In other words, the everyday round of impurity to which the average Israelite was exposed reaffirmed the holiness of life and reinforced the predisposition to protect and extend it.

Similarly, the priest was endowed with a body of medical knowledge as part of his cultic responsibilities. In our parasha, he is the person who diagnoses the skin condition. He judges its severity, makes the determination to quarantine the one stricken and decides if time has effected a cure. Indeed, it is quite likely that the priest also had a good command of animal anatomy and diseases, given the centrality of animal sacrifices in the Temple cult.

Later, Judaism would demand of its religious leaders an equal measure of attentiveness to the natural world. Competence in the laws pertaining to circumcision, family purity, the prohibition against commingling diverse plants, animals or fibers, the calendar and kosher slaughtering all required a modicum of concrete, specific knowledge. By embracing all facets of life, Judaism encouraged a disposition to observe the real world. With its this-worldly orientation, Judaism set out to discover God’s grandeur in nature and imbue our daily lives with a sacred hue.

In short, the Torah cultivated a religious mind set that affirms life and takes note of its multifarious forms. The world as created is good and is to be incorporated into religious life. Each morning we thank God at the beginning of our prayers for having restored our sight, “who gives sight to the blind.” To me this also includes the power to penetrate beyond the prosaic, to see wonders in the commonplace. Science brings us closer to God or, as Maimonides said: “Our love of God is commensurate with our knowledge of God’s ways.”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tazri’a – M’tzora are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.