by Vale Levin –
How many times have we, as educators, received first aid training? When we receive training in CPR, if we are not fully aware of the need for such a skill, how much can we actually retain? Is it even possible for us to realize that what they are demonstrating with calm and certainty can be used during an emergency? And, finally, what can Judaism tell us regarding health sciences, such as medicine, and vocational sciences, such as teaching. When we think on the great exponents of medicine and Judaism, it is clear that the first name to come to mind for many of us would be Maimonides. What did this great physician and rabbinic scholar have to say, and how can we understand the legacy he left behind, not just for the Jewish people, but for all of humanity?
Maimonides (also known as the Rambam) began his medical practice when he was just over 30 years old. Today, that would be considered the ideal age for focusing on specializations, postgraduate studies, and deepening one’s knowledge. However, in the Middle Ages, when Maimonides was alive, thirty was already considered quite advanced in age. Therefore, his medical writings only date back to when he was an older man. His major work in medicine was his treatise Regime of Health dedicated to Sultan el-Malik el-Afdhal, whom he served as a court doctor. Work Regime of Health and Maimonides’ service to the sultan did not start before 1198, when he was already 63 years old.
Something that many do not know is that Maimonides had refrained from writing about secular subjects, including medicine, before completing his masterpieces on Jewish ritual and philosophy. Thus, it was really only at an advanced age that he acquired any high positions within the field of medicine. The distinction between his Jewish and medical literary contributions are remarkable, and especially noteworthy is the fact that his medical writings contained no identifiable Jewish elements. In his study of the names of drugs, he never uses Hebrew, while providing the translations and explanations of Arabic terms in Greek, Persian, Spanish, all with Arabic lettering . In the same vein, in his work regarding poisons and extensive references to hydrophobia, he does not mention the Talmud, despite its explanation of an organic therapy for rabies in which the rabid dog´s liver is fed to the victim (surely our students would enjoy learning these Talmudic anecdotes that, although disgusting, are always fascinating.) The idea presented in the Talmud, mutatis mutandis, brings to mind the great discovery of Louis Pasteur, who did reference many contemporary and medieval sources. We dare to explain this lack of reference to the Jewish sources, with the hypothesis that Maimonides lived so imbued with the sanctity of his Hebrew tradition, that he desired to separate the profane spheres from the sacred ones, to the point of not even including Biblical or Talmudic data in his medical literary output.
It is often said that Maimonides was a doctor-philosopher, which is not far from the truth. Clearly, the medical science contained in his works are not the main attraction for the contemporary reader, who lives in a period with more advance medical science and immense development in the field. Instead, the student of his medical work, with discriminatory criteria, benefits from the discovery of observations and ideas that presage formulations from much later periods. Maimonides advises rapid action when the disease required it, a clear diagnosis of the nature of evil thatl will help the doctor to delineate and plan his action, and to “diagnose what the diseases that are claimed to be attacked and controlled promptly.” Maimonides frequently refers to the principles that should guide doctors in the exercise of their duties. In a world of blind submission to authority, in all spheres, including religion, science and politics, the Maimonides approach represents a decisive turnaround that foreshadows the advent of a new scholarship. The accentuation of doubt by Maimonides and his allegation that it represents the greatest stimulus for the creative mind can be judged as a kind of program for the future. This principle was not abstract for Maimonides, but guided him in all aspects of his intellectual activity. Despite the criticisms he made of the medical practices of his time, Maimonides represented a positive and holistic medical practice, his concept of health covers not only illness but even healthy living: “This is valid as long as the doctor reached perfection to a possible limit, so that someone´s body and soul can be entrusted to him, so that he may guide with his advice.”
When we think about health from point of view of an educator, we must learn from Maimonides and do so comprehensively, not only thinking of the physical but also the mental. When we think of our healthy learners, we are not only talking about them as beings deprived of diseases, but we must also think of our work as promoting healthy bonds, recreational habits and interactive spaces for spiritual and emotional enrichment. We must not fall into the error of being in a beautiful environment but still fostering harmful links. It is through promoting health at an integral level that we foster learning and and allow space for growth.
Additionally, when characterizing Maimonides as a doctor, not only a rabbinic scholar, we must compare his position in medicine with his activities in other spheres. While he does not actively bring Judaism into his medical work, he does in fact transfer his authority in religious problems and rules of conduct to the domain of medicine. Alongside answering specific medical questions, he remained a teacher and leader of the members of the medical profession. Some of his writings on medicine reveal a similarity in style to that of his halachic responses and were actually written at the request of patients. Even the systematic ordering of his medical works can be compared to his halachic and philosophical writings. Similarly, as educators we must adapt our teaching practices to the needs of our students and the educational community, and we must do so while considering a healthy and organic relationship between all the subjects that compose it.