What did ancient Jews know? Well, they knew that according to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:2 “one may accept their [non-Jewish] healing related to one’s property/money, but not healing related to life/ soul.” In the third installment for PSCO 2017-8, Lennart Lehmhaus (Freie Universität Berlin) explored the category of Talmudic medicine through this passage and through rabbinic commentary on it. In the process, he invited us to take seriously the epistemological implications of discrete bits of data, especially on medicine, midwives, and healing experts, for our understanding of the context of Talmudic discourse.
Rabbis lived in a broader milieu of late antique medical pluralism, an increasingly visible Christian paideia, and a wide distribution of medical and social interactions. Understanding this, Lehmhaus argued, we can see how the technical language deployed in Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:2 and its commentary in Tosefta and Talmudim betrays an anxiety about interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish medical authorities. This anxiety results in contentious and often contradictory statements about the authority, acceptability, and danger of various medical experts. Rather than resisting medical or scientific regimes of knowing, Lehmhaus suggested that rabbinic literature alludes to specific pieces of medical knowledge. These are deployed as a part of rabbinic “staging” of medical competition with other potential healing experts, offering a useful site for reflection on how rabbinic medical discourses were culturally embedded.
Lehmhaus opened his discussion with a close reading of Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:1 alongside supplementary rabbinic commentary: Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:1,3; Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 9:2 (40c); Bavli Avodah Zarah 26a; and Bereshit Rabba 53:9. He examined the contradictory rulings of the rabbis about what, precisely, counts as acceptable intimacy or contact between Jewish women who are pregnant or nursing and non-Jewish midwives and wet nurses. The Tosefta passage operates with a logic that assumes non-Jewish midwives or wet nurses are in a unique position to harm Jewish mothers and children because of the privacy and intimacy often afforded to their interactions. The Bavli appears to accept this logic, but also, as Lehmhaus suggested, assumes that breastmilk has a transformative power. A Jewish child suckling from a non-Jewish woman would do so only to their detriment. In support of the plausibility of such power in milk, drawing on recent work by John Penniman and others, he gestures toward larger late antique Mediterranean medical discourses around breastmilk. These discourses assume certain qualities and virtues are imparted through breastmilk to young children. Lehmhaus marshalled this evidence not only to support his reading of the texts, but also to suggest that this specific piece of medical knowledge and its influence on rabbinic medical discourses points to the possibility of pulling back the curtain on the cultural context of rabbinic writings.
In a second set of examples, Lehmhaus explored competition in healing and between medical experts in Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:2 and the constellation of discussions around it: Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:3, Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 2:2 (40d), and Bavli Avodah Zarah 27a-28a. In these excerpts, rabbinic discourse posits the expertise of rabbis over and against Gentile physicians, barber-surgeons, generic “expert” physicians, non-Jewish matronas, and even “a certain Arab (taya’a).” Lehmhaus pointed to the multipolar field of potential experts at play in the various scenarios proposed. It might be tempting to categorize Gentile or non-Jewish physicians together as a group that stands in contrast to the rabbis, but the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmudim do not group these figures in such a binary way. Rather, we see a matrix of discourses around medical knowledge and expertise that acts as a “medical marketplace,” one in which the rabbis acted as one interested party among many in a larger context of cultural transfer and competition. These texts reflect an alternatively insular and competitive rabbinic community. Consistently, they are responding to frameworks beyond exegesis and theology, which are the two modes most often used in the study of rabbinic literature.
This detail-oriented lecture encouraged specific questions. Do rabbis ever act as rophe (healers) for other rabbis? Yes, rabbis do heal other rabbis, but usually using recipes or advice. What about the place of women in these texts? For example, how would non-Jewish midwives or wet nurses come into contact with Jewish communities such that they were in competition with the rabbis? To what degree is it possible to discuss gynecological expertise in this period? Finally, to what degree to sociological or socio-historical considerations affect the reading of these texts? Where do slaves and servants fit into these rabbinic schema? What is the influence of Sasanian or Roman scientific/legal knowledge regimes?
Lehmhaus’s talk pointed to exciting possibilities for future scholarship which grapple with how to fully understand the multipolar functions, within rabbinic literature and beyond it, of discrete bits of scientific or medical data embedded in rabbinic texts. Why did the rabbis think there was any need to discuss some bits of knowledge and not others? Why did they decide to show future readers of rabbinic texts what they knew? And what parts of their knowledge did they decide to exhibit?
Lennart Lehmhaus is a postdoctoral research assistant in the Collaborative Research Center on a project titled “Episteme in Motion” at the Freie Universität Berlin. He spent the fall of 2017 as a Katz Center fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, thinking specifically about rabbinic approaches to medicine and science.