What Today’s Academic Scholars Can Learn from Their Precursors

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.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Academia, Jewish studies, Medicine, Talmud

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship