The Talmud as a Medical Textbook

June 30 2022

One of the factors that makes the Babylonian Talmud an immensely rich text—and a bewildering one to the uninitiated—is the expansiveness of its reach. In their attempt to interpret the Bible and Mishnah and to clarify Jewish law, the talmudic sages leave absolutely no subject untouched. Thus it includes numerous folk remedies and pieces of medical advice, ranging from the baldly supernatural to the seemingly practical. Jason Mokhtarian, a scholar of talmudic medicine, discusses the subject in an interview with Kate Blackwood.

Compared to [the attitudes of] other Jewish cultures, the Babylonian Talmud downplays the role of God and sin in human illness and health, and instead promotes the idea that God authorized humans to heal themselves using the natural world that He created, such as plants and animals,.

For the most part, scholars of rabbinic literature research medicine as a subcategory of magic. . . . Yet as I argue in [my] book, it is equally important to remember that in the Talmud not all magic is medicine, and not all medicine is magic. In other words, scholars who subsume talmudic medicine under the category of magic tend to ignore the therapies that have few, if any, identifiable magical elements, such as those that use natural ingredients to be consumed or applied to the body. It is these latter therapies—the more empirical ones, so to speak—that actually make up the majority of the talmudic medical tradition.

There is no reason, [therefore], to dismiss out of hand that some of the more empirical therapies (e.g., potions, drugs, salves, etc.), based on a detailed knowledge of the medicinal properties of specific plants and animal parts, may have been effective in treating certain afflictions.

One sees, [however, a] skeptical attitude toward Talmudic medicine already in the writings of Rabbi Sherira Gaon, the head of the Pumbedita academy [in Baghdad] in the 10th century, who says simply that “our sages were not physicians.”

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Read more at Cornell Chronicle

More about: Judaism, Magic, Medicine, Talmud

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy