When Jews Became Doctors

By Jacob Friedman
Friday, June 22, 2012

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?

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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