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When Jews Became Doctors

Paul Ehrlich, 1915.

The study of medicine has fascinated the Jewish imagination for centuries. From the mysterious remedies of the Talmud to the medieval medical practice of Maimonides and the modern age of my-son-the-doctor​ bragging rights, medical expertise has long been considered a mark of distinction for assiduous Jews. But is this concurrence merely a coincidence, or does it point to a profound relationship between Judaism and medicine, each seemingly a self-sufficient system of thought and practice?

Relevant Links
My People, the Doctors  Sherwin B. Nuland, New Republic. The number, distinction, and renown of Jewish doctors have long been disproportionate. Perhaps because, to Jews, the practice of medicine is itself a religious activity.
Medicine and the Jews  Encyclopaedia Judaica. A history of the contributions of the Jews to the field of medicine through the ages.
Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics  Avraham Steinberg, Feldheim. From AIDS to medical confidentiality, the Sabbath, and human cloning, this comprehensive work includes a comparative analysis of the Jewish and general medical-ethical approach to new and classical topics.
L’Chaim and Its Limits  Leon Kass, First Things. What does Judaism have to say about the moral challenges posed by biomedical technology, with its growing power to control life and its techniques to conquer aging?

This was my question as I visited Yeshiva University Museum's exhibition, Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960.  Though the exhibit did not tackle my concern directly, in each of its three main sections it certainly suggested that, indeed, the interaction between Judaism and modern medicine has helped to mature the institutions on both sides of the encounter.

Among the doctors featured in the exhibit's biographical section were three scientists of global repute: Paul Ehrlich, Waldemar Haffkine, and Joseph Goldberger. Each made landmark breakthroughs in the science of medicine, giving hope and life to thousands who otherwise would have had neither. The accomplishments of each were acknowledged with major awards and with notice in popular media including motion pictures and comic books, but the ways in which their success as scientists and doctors spoke to them as Jews were drastically different.

Ehrlich (1854-1915), famous for discovering the first pathogen-specific drug—the original "magic bullet''—to cure syphilis, retained a strong Jewish identity throughout his life, in spite of the anti-Semitism that delayed his receiving the Nobel Prize. Approached by Chaim Weizmann, he enthusiastically agreed to lend support to the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A supporter of Israel and an archetypal "enlightened'' Jew, the rabbi of the Frankfurt Jewish community said at Ehrlich's funeral that "above all, the German and the Jew were united in him."

Haffkine (1860-1930), meanwhile, saved thousands in India by personally administering the vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague that he discovered through auto-experimentation.  Out of his cherished commitment to Jewish tradition, Haffkine spent a great deal of time late in his career devoted to Jewish communal causes. In a 1916 essay, "A Plea for Orthodoxy," he countered the claim that the modern study of science and history undermined traditional Judaism.

In this, he was very much at odds with Goldberger (1874-1929), whose discovery of the causes and treatment of pellagra made him famous in America.  Goldberger maintained that rational inquiry and empiricism were opposed to ritualistic Judaism.  Inspired by the majesty of the natural world, he turned toward science as part of a search for rational religion; while he is not known to have renounced his Judaism, his spiritual life did not incorporate the religion of his youth.

These three dramatic biographies present an uneasy quandary.  Among these great men, the gamut of 19th-century Judaism (excluding ultra-Orthodoxy) was represented—and yet the trajectory and ultimate success of their respective medical careers were essentially the same.  The unsatisfying inference is that Judaism has no strong bearing on the practice of modern medicine.

Fortunately, the uniqueness of Jewish medical practice does come into focus in the second part of the exhibit, which discusses the formation of Jewish public health institutions such as the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, opened in 1901, and the Society for the Protection of Jewish Health (OZE), established in 1912 in czarist Saint Petersburg. These institutions were originally intended to serve the community but their services were soon offered more widely—exemplifying the way in which Jewish concern for other Jews expanded to Jewish concern for the wellbeing of all, regardless of race or religion. Jews, whether because of their firsthand encounters with anti-Semitism or out of an organic concern for their neighbors, understood that medical care must not be discriminatory.

OZE went on to expand its efforts throughout the Russian territories through the end of World War I, and today operates more than 90 medical facilities in Europe, Latin America, and North Africa. Meanwhile, by 1933, Beth Israel was already boasting of its ratio of 45 percent non-Jewish patients: "The human need that comes to us we greet with unbiased concern. Our door stands wide open to all, regardless of nationality, race, creed, or color. The human being, his health and welfare is our first and lasting consideration."

The exhibit ends with a video that focuses on two of the main medical issues facing Jewish halakhists and ethicists: genetic screening of couples and fetuses, and end-of-life care.  (Abortion is mentioned only in passing.)  The video presents an array of personal and philosophical reflections on the spiritual significance of medically controlling birth and death. Without offering full justifications for any particular position, the video demonstrates that Jews have begun to draw up their own rules of engagement for medical decision-making—striking evidence that the medical practice of the Jews is a distinctly religious form of medicine, with an eye toward the holy.

The video is a fitting end to the story of the Jewish encounter with modern medicine, showing that Jews have become so comfortable in the field to which they have contributed so much that they see it as a natural part of their larger religious framework. These three components of the exhibit—the extraordinary biographies of three Jewish doctors, the success of Jewish public health institutions, and the spiritual engagement with the quandaries of medical science—tell the story of the fruitful integration of Judaism and medicine, in which each discipline has gained from exposure to the other. Not only has modern medicine provided a platform for Jewish concern with the physical wellbeing of mankind; but it has proven itself to be a platform for Jewish spiritual engagement as well.   

Jacob Friedman is a fellow at the Tikvah Fund. 

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Cantor Ronald E. Graner on June 22, 2012 at 9:53 am (Reply)
The Talmudic argument that study of secular subjects is of equal importance to the study of religion is addressed in B'rachot 63a. When Akiva hides under Rav's bed to learn about the birds and the bees. "...But it is Torah and I am required to learn".
I have written a musical theater work called: "MUSICAL PAWNS" that traces the history of composer David Nowakowsky (1848-1921)whose unpublished musical manuscripts had to be smuggled out of Russia during the little reign of terror 1921-1923 and was later hidden on a farm in occupied France to keep them from falling into the hands of the Nazis.
The above mentioned Talmudic quote is integrated into a fictional conversation between Nowakowsky's Great-Grandson Alexandre, who was 5 years old when he and his parents became stateless refugees, and his Father Boris, who later in the play hides the manuscripts on a farm in occupied France, before escaping to Switzerland. The events are true. The conversation fictional.
Alexandre: "Was school always this bad?"
Boris: "Yes. Even your Gross-Pappa David got into trouble. He was enrolled in a special school called a yeshiva...."
In the anecdote, a fictional yeshiva student who I facetiously call Dubnow, quotes the passage not for the sake of Torah study, but with the intention of disrupting the class. The scene acts as a trigger for a discussion on "Kavanah" and to introduce the Yeshiva style of education to the audience.
In real life, Alexandre had issues with fellow students in the French public school during 1939-1940, because of his German accent, and historian Simon Dubnow hated Yeshiva.
The play was performed at the FRIGID New York Theater Festival February 21 to March 4 2012 and won the Audience Choice Award. An expanded 90 minute version is scheduled to be performed at the Toronto FRINGE Festival July 4th 15th 2012.
With regard to a possible familial connection between historian Simon Dubnow and scientist Paul Ehrlich, I note that books and articles written about S.M. Dubnow are authored by his descendants: Sophie Dubnov-Erlich and Victor Erlich. Perhaps one of our geniological readers can prove or disprove some blood-relationship between these great thinkers. Other variations of the spelling of the last name are Erlikh and Ehrlich.
Bernard A.Yablin,MD on June 22, 2012 at 11:17 am (Reply)
as recorded
Bernard Yablin on June 22, 2012 at 11:19 am (Reply)
Also,check out one of last year's issues of the Rambam Medical Journal (Haifa) by Dr.Seymour Schwartz(in English) on the original historical contributions of American Jewish Surgeons.---Many people dont know of one of WW2's most important military surgeons was Dr.Morris Shapiro who started with the landings in North Africa in November 1942 and ended at the Swiss border in May 1945---when I was an intern here in Rochester,NY in 1953-1954,I chose him to be the surgeon for my family.-Bernard A.Yablin,MD--ret asst Clin Prof Peds--URMC
amy roth on June 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm (Reply)
Does Jews' preponderance in medicine have anything to do with the age-old issue of what they were PERMITTED to do in the repressive societies they lived in? Just as Jews were disproportionately to be found in the businesses of banking and liquor production and distribution, because Gentiles more or less left these fields to Jews, was medicine also an area that for one reason or another Gentiles preferred to avoid? (Just asking.)
Jerry Blaz on June 24, 2012 at 7:37 pm (Reply)
In the Jewish Scriptures, the priest was also the healer. So "medicine" in the antiquarian age was not separate from faith and liturgy and ceremonies. Around the third century C.E., the Christians separated religion as its own magisterium. No doubt this was under the influence of the Romans, who learned about classification from the Greeks and so, civilization was off creating now realms of discourse, an exercise we continue till this day.

During the Talmudic period, the sages engaged remunerative work from woodcutters and farm laborers to doctors. And we know that very often Jews worked as doctors in the medieval courts of the Muslims and the Christians. And even when Jews had to exist on the fringes of society, they have been physicians and doctors. There were instances up through the 19th century when reference was made to "Jewish doctors" ambivalently directed to rabbis and to medical doctors and physicians alike. And in the modern world, many new treatments of a vast expanse of diseases and ailments were discovered by Jews working in medicine.

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