Thursday, May 26, 2011

When the rabbis became doctors part II

Continued from here.

Funny, I forgot one of my good sources which I had intended to include in my first post - I even cited the book which I'm about to refer to again!

The issue refers to a famous quip that "Judaism used to be healthy until the rabbis became "doctors," and then Judaism became sick." The first post discussed possible origins of that line. I also referred to Henry Illoway's introduction to his father, American Rabbi Bernard Illowy's book of collected articles and responsa, the Battles of God.

In the very same book the son prints a letter from his father to Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise's newspaper the Israelite, dated November 14, 1855. Here it is:

As you can see, Rabbi Illowy quotes "an old Hasid" living in his city (so yes, there was at least on Chassid living in St. Louis in 1855):
The ancient rabbis, he says, had foreseen that a time will come when there will be no more rabbis; doctors will replace them. Only doctors and no rabbis will reign; doctors who will cure the eyes, and leave the heart and soul sick, and in a burst of passion and jealousy they scolded these doctors, saying, "The best of doctors should go to hell."
This then is a "Chassidishe vort" on a famous saying in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a and elsewhere) that the best doctors are destined or deserve to go to hell. The Chassid homiletically interpreted it as if the rabbis were prescient and referring to the 19th century phenomenon of Reformed rabbis using the title "Doctor," rather than "Rabbi."

Interestingly, R. Illowy, in discussing this, and a saying in the Mechilta to the effect that the best snakes (?) should have their heads crushed, gives a textual emendation, changing the word שבנחשים, serpents, to שבלחשים, [charm-]whisperers. You then find a perfect parallelism: the "best physicians" means (according to its traditional interpretation) those doctors who arrogantly attribute their successes to their own skill, rather than to God, and instead of talking about snakes (what are "the best snakes?" and why should they be crushed?) you have the best shamans.

Truth be told, in my opinion the emendation is not necessary for Rabbi Illowy's explanation; one can even interpret "נחשים" to mean diviners, can't one?

Note that the context is a discussion in the pages of the Israelite on the question "Is the Talmud Anti-Social?" This particular debate deserves a post of its own. It's very interesting. In the meantime, here is a very interesting quote from the response by Bernard Felsenthal (July 13, 1855):

"At present I am not in possession of the necessary literary resources, (my own Hebrew library contains scarcely half a dozen of books) and also talmudical and rabbinical writings are not accessible to me in this country. Although I can well remember from former days, that a very considerable number of decisions is found in the Talmud and in the Poskim, which do not agree with the ethics of the present time."

Is this not interesting? - the account of seforim-accessibility in this country in 1855.

Felsenthal goes on to contend that the presence of such things
"don't prove anything against us . . . As well as Eisenmenger could write his "Entdecktes Judenthum," (Discovered Judaism,) we yet easier could write a Discovered Catholicism or Protestantism. But every unprejudiced man must name such a production scandalous."
At this point Wise inserts an editorial paragraph stating that quoting from Poskim proves nothing for or against the Talmud. The explanation for the bad things in the Poskim is that they are from the Middle Ages, and its no wonder that in those dark times, with its persecutions, the Poskim chose the worst, least representative views in the Talmud as binding and normative. However, the Talmud itself is by far "the views of the numerous, excellent, humane and wise interpreters of the law."

And Orthodox rabbis think they have problems today?


  1. SEE NAZIR 52a where the rabbis asked the doctors for their expert opinion. See Tos there who explains why it wasn't something the rabbis would know. I guess that even though now people think those rabbis were doctors, they didn't think so!

  2. I found the Ḥ in |Ḥasid| fascinating for 1855 -- when is this symbol first attested?

    (Also fascinating that there was "an old Ḥasid" in St. Louis in 1855, of course.)

  3. Mar G, Sorry for being insufficiently clear. The book you are reading was published in Berlin in 1914 by Rav Illowy's son. The article though is from 1855.

    The history of the Ḥ - a good idea worth looking into.

    Yeshivaman, nice point. You are matzdik the geonic tradition.

  4. So, you think that the Ḥ might have been added specifically for the reprint in this book?

  5. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that there is no single source that juxtaposes the comments about doctors and snakes. "The best of doctors goes to Gehinnom" is from Kiddushin 82a, followed there by the parallel phrase, "and the most 'kosher' of butchers is the partner of Amalek." On the other hand, the Mekhilta on Beshalach has, "Rabbi Shimon would say: The best of the gentiles – kill, and the best of the snakes – crush his brain!" So it would seem that there is no necessary parallel to be made between doctors and snakes (or shamans). And it is perfectly understandable why R. Shimon would advocate crushing (even) the best of snakes: they belong to a dangerous species, just as even the best of gentiles (in his view) belong to a group of people who are out to get us.

  6. Mar G, in all likelihood there was no h with a dot under it in the type box of the Cincinnati firm which printed the Israelite in 1855. I also doubt the convention existed already then. It would be a good idea to look into the history of translating the ches.

    Dan, you are correct. These are not juxtaposed. The Rev. Dr. Mensor has juxtaposed them, and he was subjected to ridicule for inventing Talmudic passages.

  7. S., if they had a small period or dot, they could have just placed it underneath the H character. Or even written it in by hand, into a lithograph.

  8. >On the other hand, the Mekhilta on Beshalach has, "Rabbi Shimon would say: The best of the gentiles – kill, and the best of the snakes – crush his brain!"

    To augment this maamar, the parralel text is masechet sofrim (I believe ch. 15) reads "the best of the gentiles - in a time of war - kill" In other words, it is making a point on the ethics of war, not advocating wholesale murder.

  9. Is it "the best of doctors go to hell", or "to hell with the best of doctors"?

    There is a difference.

  10. IJ Benjamin's travel memoir has more to say about the accessibility of seforim in different communities around that time.



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