Reviewing a recent scholarly monograph on talmudic medicine, Shai Secunda finds it “philologically sloppy, theoretically obtuse, and astonishingly lazy,” while at the same time demonstrating “the chutzpah to dismiss earlier scholars for not having been trained in the fields of knowledge that [the author] never actually puts to work.” Some of those earlier scholars in fact still have quite a lot to offer, and even if their works need updating, they have been spared “the toxic positivity” that, according to Secunda, produces so much mediocre scholarship today:
Julius Preuss was one of the few rabbi-doctors of old-school Jewish studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums) who could actually write prescriptions. Versed in Jewish learning, competent in Semitic philology, and trained in medicine at the University of Berlin, Preuss in 1911 published a 735-page tome called Biblical and Talmudic Medicine that capped a short life of intense research into anatomy, pathology, therapy, pharmacology, and dietetics in classical Jewish literature and especially the Babylonian Talmud, where medical discussions abound. He died two years later at the age of fifty-two, leaving behind a prominent rabbinic and academic family that counts among its ranks a chief rabbi, heads of yeshivas, and university professors. One of the founding fathers of the history of medicine, Karl Friedrich Jakob Sudhoff, eulogized Preuss as no less than a “master of historic criticism.”
Like a good German philologist, Preuss discerned better readings in medieval rabbinic manuscripts and sniffed out cognates of the original Hebrew and Aramaic medical terminology in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic. A comprehensive encyclopedia rather than a thesis-driven monograph, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine still affords a dizzying view of a late antique world seething with disease and teeming with medical experts, local doctors, accepted practices, and indigenous therapies, including those discussed, debated, collated, and collected in the Babylonian Talmud. If nothing else, the sheer scope, ambition, and seriousness of Biblical and Talmudic Medicine conveys something of the consequence of the history of medicine. We won’t be visiting the bloodletter anytime soon, nor will we be consuming honey-soaked wheat cakes in the event of heart palpitations (two therapies recorded in the Talmud). Yet, studying how our forebearers dwelled in their mortal bodies, struggled to care for the infirm, and even flourished, to the best of their abilities, against a world of pain gives us a precious view of how they understood themselves and the cosmos, how they navigated situations of life and death, and how far we’ve come.