Milton Himmelfarb was fond of repeating the following joke: "the Jewish people was healthy until its rabbis became doctors," for he used it in Commentary in a 1957 book review, and recycled it in the same periodical in 1974. (In 1957 the sentence continued: "it also was learned and pious until it began to study Jewish history. Nobody was at fault. The rabbis' becoming doctors did not cause but was caused by the Jewish people's losing its health, and the study of Jewish history did not cause but was caused by the loss of the old learning and piety.") The line, he attributes, to one "wit."
Not long ago I saw someone attribute this quote to the Chasam Sofer, which very clearly seemed fallacious. Someone else suggested that it was really a quote from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. While I agree that it has some of his style, as a suggestion it suffers from the inability of anyone to show in his writings where he said this.
On the face of it, I suspect that it's an American joke. Henry Illoway, son of pioneering 19th century Bohemian-American Orthodox rabbi Bernhard Illowy, writes the following:
In the early days of which we are speaking [i.e., the 1850s] trained rabbis, graduates of universities, were rare south of Baltimore and west of Philadelphia. The incumbents of the ministerial positions were mainly Hazanim , ex-Shohatim, teachers, young men who had looked in upon a Yeshibah but found the acquisition of knowledge of the Torah too onerous a task, and even laymen who or some reason or other sought these positions rather than follow the vocations they were trained to or take up a peddler's pack as did or had done most of their coreligionists. These gentlemen quickly assumed the Reverend and ere long the Reverend Doctor. Wise with his geniality, generous disposition and eagerness to make friends, adherents, followers, for his cause, was very liberal in bestowing the degree of Doctor (which was not specified) upon the few who were too modest or too timid to assume it themselves. An article reviling orthodoxy and its defenders was sure to be so rewarded.
He footnotes a personal anecdote:
The title [doctor] became so cheapened that a few of the more scholarly men who did not hold the degree would not alone not assume it, but even cast it from them. Thus happening one day, a short time after our arrival in New Orleans, to meet in the street the Rev. James E. Gutheim, the minister of the Portuguese Synagogue, I saluted him and adressed him as Dr. Gutheim. Thereupon he said to me; "Young man! I am plain Mr. Gutheim and no doctor!"
This is from pg. 6 of מלחמות אלהים, the 1914 volume titled in English The Controversial Letters and The Casuistic Decisions of the Late Rabbi Bernard Illowy Ph. D. This book is truly fascinating and I recommend all read it.
Speaking of Wise, conferrer of unearned doctorates according to 19th century Orthodox lore, writing in August of 1867 in his own periodical, the Israelite, of the proposed faculty for the formation of a Maimonides College we see the following:
"Rev. Dr. Bettelheim, Professor of Misnah with commentaries, Shulchan Aruch and Yad Hachasakah." [. . . ] this is enough to rouse suspicion. Who is Rev. Dr. Bettelheim? Can anybody who reads Jewish literature tell us, who is Rev. Dr. Prof. Bettlheim? We read, whatever appears in our field both here or in Europe, still we never heard that name. But aside of this, the gentleman is Professor of the Mishnah "with commentaries." Does anybody read Mishnah without commentaries? The man who added the words "with commentaries" knows nothing about the Mishnah or its commentaries. A professor of Shulchan Aruch and Yad Hachasakah. This is ridiculous enough to figure in some Purim play. The Rev. Dr. and Prof. Bettelheim may rest assured, that nobody on this globe ever could boast such a title, and most likely nobody will ever imitate it. The question is, why does the Rev. Dr. Prof. Bettelheim jump from the Shulchan Aruch to the Yad Hachasakah, when we have to it the compendia of Alfas, Tur, Rosh, Rashaba, besides Ran, Beth Joseph, Kesef Mishnah &c. &c. &c. For the sake of novelty, euphony, and aesthetics, we propose to amend the Rev. doctor's title to read thus: Rev. Dr. Bettelheim, Professor of the Mishnah, Bartenurah, Tosefeth Yom Tob, Shulchan Aruch, Shach, Tur, Meirath Enaim, Rif, Ran, Yad, Kesef Mishnah, &c. Tur, Darke Mosheh, Beth Joseph, Rashbo, Rosh &c. &c. &c. and no Chinese in this world could outdo his titles. For the sake of convenience he might arrange them alphabetically, and to save time he might allow students to call him plainly Prof. . . "
And so it continues. (One more point: Wise's next target is Isaac Leeser, who was appointed a professor of Homiletics, Belles Lettres and Comparative Theology. Wise, who couldn't stand Leeser any more than Leeser could him, says that Leeser is almost as meek and unpretentious as Moses, and he will tell you a dozen times in one minute that "he never made any theological studies, and never frequented a university." See here for the saga of Wise and Leeser, and the question of who did or didn't have semicha (rabbinic ordination) and who did or didn't lie about it.
Before I get back to doctors, it's worth posting the following portraits of the aforementioned Rabbi Illowy (1812-1871), and his wife Kathleen (1815-1892), looking very much like Whistler's Rebbetzin.
The portraits were painted in 1862. In case you ever need to know some arcane trivia to impress persons of quality, you can tell them that the answer to the question, Did any of the Chasam Sofer's musmachim (ordainees) where a ring on his finger? is Yes, Rabbi Illowy.
In case anyone is utterly scandalized that an Orthodox rabbi would wear a ring on his finger, here is Samson Wertheimer's wedding ring from 1690:
Note: this ring has nothing to do with a wedding ceremony. However, such fancy schmancy rings were quite common in his time and place. Wertheimer (1658-1724) was a rabbi and a Court Jew. Very rich, very important, and very learned. Incidentally, the illustration was from the first Encylopedia Judaica. The new one with almost no pictures didn't include it.
In addition to the Doctor situation in American Judaism in the 19th century, from poking around I noticed that the quote seems to have made a bit of a splash in sources beginning with Milton Himmelfarb, and thereafter from the 1960s and 70s - mainly Conservative and Reform Jewish sources, citing an old Orthodox joke. Here are some other examples:
Writing in 1983, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg said, in an article called In defense of Modernity:
"In the fifties, I changed my name back from Irving to Yitzchak (The Talmud tells: The Jews were liberated from Egypt by merit of not changing their names...You never heard of Abraham, Irving, and Jacob, did you?) I went to Harvard University to get my Ph.D. because every red-blooded American Jewish boy dreamt of going to Harvard and/or marrying a shiksa. After three years there, I wore my kipah publicly (the equivalent of Jews coming out of the closet). And when I received my Ph.D., I insisted on being called Rabbi because the glorification of the doctorate over the Rabbinate was a sign of pathological substitution of outside values for Jewish values. ("When Rabbis became doctors, Judaism became sick."And:
"Citing Matthew Arnold's principle, let us see how the relationship between individual and society might be formulated for people like us. We are modern, enlightened Jews. Modern, enlightened Jews are those who are not unmodern, unenlightened. The unmodern and unenlightened Jews are those concerning whom we have a tradition, that the Jewish people was healthy before its rabbis became Doctors. Our rabbis are Doctors. For us only polydoxy is orthodox, only orthodoxy is heterodox "(Year book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Volume 79 1970 pg. 169).
An old Orthodox Jewish joke: "The Jewish people was healthy, before Rabbis became Doctors." (Himmelfarb again, Commentary 1974)
Again, in Commentary, Jack Wertheimer (1994) quotes a "wag":
"A wag once observed that when rabbis became doctors (of philosophy), the Jewish community got sick. Today, as rabbis become therapists, the community has found itself largely bereft of a superego, in the form of religious leaders willing to articulate what it should and can do."
I have a few other examples, including one from Ismar Schorsch, but they are all basically the same. I did find something that says something very different, yes similar, in 1911. Someone, writing in a British periodical called the Outlook, A weekly review of politics, art, literature, and finance, spoke of "those Rabbis are doctors who prescribe for our Western ailments the petty anachronistic ideas of a Russian ghetto."
Now, it may well be that the place to look is in Yiddish newspapers, but barring that I came across one source that may actually be the origin, or at least a grandfather, of the quote. It is a passage in Shir's 1845 anti-Reform polemic Tokhakhas Megulah ("Open Rebuke"), of all places.
He writes that the Reformers have diagnosed the Jewish people as sick, and they pose as the physicians who can cure them. He says that what actually occurred is that the Jews became sick in the following manner: earlier doctors - the rabbis - had been prescribing to them a sensitive diet and lifestyle to keep them healthy, namely the commandments and lifestyle of the religious Jew - but the patient was ignoring their prescription. So of course they got sick. Now the Reformers came along posing as physicians and said "The Jews are sick," and asked the patients themselves what will cure them. The patients told them, No kosher food, etc. So the physicians, acting as flatterers (enablers we would call them today) began prescribing the very unhealthy lifestyle the people had been living, ignoring the real advice they had received from the real physicians.
Of much amusement is the fact that Shir (Solomon Judah Rapoport) affixed the following motto to the German portion of his books:
At first I thought, "Shir, who are you? Shir writing poetry?" (I know, the irony.) But then I realized that only the title, Die Religions-Reformer, is Shir's. This is an excerpt from a fable by Herder, printed in 1773. The gist is that an old, blind woman lay sick in her home. The doctors were all taking their time to cure her, and since she was blind, each one took some of the furnishings in the home as "payment." Finally she she was cured, but the house was empty. Then they wanted to bill her, so she told them that despite her newly working eyes - she can't see anything.