The first Jewish doctors


This week’s Torah portion is Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59.

In 1990, Dr. Gail Wilensky asked me to make an invocation at her installation as director of Medicare and Medicaid. I included Birkat Ha-kohanim, the priestly blessing, as the Torah speaks about the role of the kohen in diagnosing illness and disease. It also makes the kohanim responsible for public health, although not necessarily as doctors.

Among concerns in this week’s parsha, Tazria, are ritual purity following childbirth for a woman; skin diseases and their diagnoses; designating the kohen as the diagnostician in determining the type of skin eruption and method of treatment; the laws of leprosy; categories of pure and impure; isolation, confinement and return to the community.

The commandments presented here provide ways to deal with public health issues without doctors. Yet Judaism differed from other societies where magic and medicine men dealt with illness. Judaism rejects magic as a way of responding to illness, and it rejects magic as a way of dealing with the aftereffects of birth.

In fact, about 213 of the 613 commandments deal with medical issues, quarantine, public welfare and return to the community. While disease may be frightening, one can make the point that studying Tazria and the following portion, Metzora, may set a young person on a course to one of the medical professions. Rabbi Gunther Plaut said that the kohen is not a physician and he does not attempt to cure tzarat (traditionally translated as leprosy). Nevertheless, other commentators say that the kohen’s role was more than ritual.

No one is surprised by the idea of rabbis as spiritual counselors, assisting in healing an individual. Our mi sheberach prayer for healing reinforces the notion of spiritual healing. And studies have validated the importance of faith, prayer and caring as important and even essential components in the wellbeing of a person.

An entire section of the Mishnah is devoted to afflictions. One passage states the kohen may not examine the affliction on a cloudy day. Rather it must be on a clear day, so he can come to a clear conclusion.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has opened a new exhibition: “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America.” Deputy Director Deborah Cardin points out that Jewish identity has been shaped by our association with medicine. This is a reminder of how the Torah continues to shape our world view, how the Torah has emphasized the importance of medical practice, and how excelling in this area has propelled us through the ages to the recognition of Judaism’s contribution to the well-being of mankind.

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf. He is a member of the Educational Directors Council.

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