Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is this Torah-true Judaism?

I was looking at Rabbi Zamir Cohen's book The Coming Revolution
today. In it he claims that Louis Pasteur developed his cure for rabies after first reading a French translation of the Talmud. Cohen writes:
While living in Paris, Rabbi Dr Rabinowitz began translating the Talmud into French When his friend, Louis Pasteur, saw a copy of "Seder Mo'ed" - the tractates dealing primarily with the Jewish holiday cycle - it rouse his curiosity. To his amazement he read there the following statement:
"If someone is bitten by a mad dog [affected with rabies], he should be fed the lobe of that dog's liver."
The doctor was amazed at this healing method, which used part of the infected animal itself. He concluded that the Sages knew that an infected body produces antibodies, which attack an invading infection. Moreover, it seems that the antibodies, which concentrate in the liver, could actually help heal a person who was bitten by a rabid dog. Do. Pasteur immediately began a series of experiments that eventually resulted in the saving of millions of human lives.

It really bothers me when people use falsehoods to try and make other people religious. To me, this seems like a complete distortion of both history (and science) and - more importantly - of Torah. Let's have a look at the facts:

About Rabinowitz I only know what google tells me. Apparently Dr. Israel Mikhl Rabinowitz was originally from Grodno, and eventually came to Paris where he qualified as a doctor. But he gave up medicine to devote himself to translating the Talmud into French (the international language of the time). According to this website

Between 1871 and 1880... he published excerpts of the sequence: זרעים, מועד, נשׁים, נזיקין, קדשׁים, טהרות [six books of Mishna: Seeds, Holidays, Women, Damages, Sanctity, Purification] accompanied by forwards and comments.

It is perhaps conceivable that he knew Louis Pasteur. But Pasteur had begun work on vaccination in the mid 1860s. While his vaccine for rabies was first used only in 1885, the concept of vaccines went back to Jenner's work in 1796. Furthermore, Pasteur did not use livers to obtain his vaccine, but saliva from rabid dogs. It is possible that the story Cohen tells is true, but to my mind extremely unlikely that reading the Talmud led to his discovery of the vaccine.

Now let us look at the Talmud:

The Mishna (Yoma chapter 8 number 6) tells us that the idea of eating the lobe of the liver of the diseased dog was actually forbidden by the majority of the Rabbis. Only Matia ben Cheresh permitted it. Soncino translates thus (Yoma 82b):


As Rabbi Dr. Fred Rosner points out, he lived in Rome, and was thus acquainted with the wisdom of the ancient physicians such as Dioscorides, Galen and others. In other words, not only is the 'cure' not agreed to by the Rabbis, its source is not actually Jewish, but from the Greeks. In fact, "Vegetius Renatus (3rd century) recommended that cattle bitten by a rabid dog could be protected by making them swallow the boiled liver of the dog." Perhaps he learnt this from Rav Matia ben Cheresh, but it seems to me equally possible that Rav Matia learnt it from him. It is possible that Matia lived earlier (2nd century) which means that we should credit him with the cure. But I am not convinced that his cure was discovered from his knowledge of Torah, but rather from the medicine that was being discovered in Rome at that time.

If we look at the Talmud (84a) that follows this Mishna, we see that the Rabbis' ideas of cures were very different from those of modern medicine.

‘One whom it bites, dies’. What is the remedy? — Abaye said: Let him take the skin of a male hyena and write upon it: I, So-and-so, the son of that-and-that woman, write upon the skin of a male Hyena: Hami, kanti, kloros. God, God, Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah, Then let him strip off his clothes, and bury then, in a grave [at cross-roads], for twelve months of a year. Then he should take them out and burn them in an oven, and scatter the ashes. During these twelve months, if he drinks water, he shall not drink it but out of a copper tube, lest he see the shadow of the demon and be endangered. Thus the mother of Abba b. Martha, who is Abba b. Minyumi, made for him a tube of gold [for drinking purposes].

According to Zamir Cohen, the Rabbis of the Talmud knew all of modern medicine, and should be thanked for inventing vaccines and saving lives. Do you think that even he would go to a doctor who prescribed this kind of treatment? The Rabbis of the Talmud thought that rabies was caused by either witchcraft or an evil spirit:

Where does it come from? — Rab said: Witches are having their fun with it. Samuel said: An evil spirit rests upon it

Is it not dishonest to claim that the Rabbis understood that "infected body produces antibodies, which attack an invading infection." Would Pasteur really have been impressed by this scientific knowledge?

Why does any of this make a difference? Apart from the fact that I think it is a perversion and distortion of Torah (which bothers me a LOT), it has major implications for halacha. The next sugya in the Talmud there is about the definition of death. Do we check the nose (for respiration) or the heart (from cardiac activity)? If the Rabbis of the Talmud knew all of modern medicine, and received their knowledge from the Torah, then there is no possibility that modern medicine knows better than they about things like deep brain stem death. If, on the other hand, the Rabbis were telling us the wisdom of their time, then perhaps we can update Jewish views on medicine to take into account modern medicine and techniques.

Actually, just to finish the thought and remove any doubt, I am sure that the medicinal knowledge of the Rabbis came from their contemporaries. Because it says so on the same page of Talmud! Look at the following story and cures:

R. Johanan suffered from scurvy. He went to a [non-Jewish] matron, who prepared something for him on Thursday and Friday. He said to her: How shall I do iton the Sabbath? She answered him,: Then you will not need it [any more]. He said: But if I should need it, what then,? She replied: ‘Swear unto me by the God of Israel that you will not reveal it’ [to others]; whereupon he swore: ‘To the God of Israel I shall not reveal it’. She revealed it to him, and he went forth and expounded it in his lecture. But he had sworn to her? — [He swore]: ‘To the God of Israel I shall not reveal it’ [which implies] but to His people I shall reveal it! But this is a profanation of the Name? — It was so that he had explained it [the meaning of his oath] to her from the very beginning. What did she give to him? R. Aha, the son of R. Ammi said: The water of leaven, olive oil and salt. R. Yemar said: Leaven itself, olive oil and salt. R. Ashi said: The fat of a goose-wing. Abaye said: l tried everything without achieving a cure for myself, until an Arab recommended: ‘Take the stones of olives which have not become ripe one third, burn them in fire upon a new rake, and stick them into the inside of the gums’. I did so and was cured.

Apart from the problematic issue of Rabbi Yochanan cheating his doctor, it is clear that their treatment of scurvy was taken from the local non-Jewish wise people. Not the Torah. Also, I am not convinced that the Talmud is really talking about scurvy (it is Soncino's translation, and may be correct, because the symptoms sound like scurvy, but perhaps it is not). If it is talking about scurvy, then we know that both the Talmud's idea of the cause, and their cures are wrong.

Whence does [scurvy] come? — From [eating] very hot wheat [-en bread], and from the [overnight] remnants of a pie of fish-hash and flour. What is its symptom? — If he puts anything between his teeth, his gums will bleed.

Scurvy is actually caused by a Vitamin C diffiency, and Captain James Cook is credited as being a pioneer in feeding his sailors foods with Vitamin C to prevent the disease. He was the first to circumnavigate the globe without losing a single man to scurvy.

If G-d's signet ring is 'Truth' should we not at least try to be honest when we present Judaism to others?

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