EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2021/22
Medicine, Illness, and the Body: Jewish Healing and Healers from the Middle Ages to Early Modernity
International conference, Free University in Berlin, 27-28 July 2022
The Rationale for the Conference
Where do we draw the line between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures of healing? Should historians draw it at all? After all, medicine has often been portrayed as a shared cultural space. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish medical practitioners across Europe and the wider Mediterranean engaged in similar theories and practices to diagnose and heal their patients. These healers ostensibly inherited earlier medical and scientific paradigms from Antiquity, such as Galenic medicine, mediated to Jewish medical practitioners first through Arabic and later in Latin translations in the Middle Ages. As Carmen Caballero–Navas notes, philosophical and medical theories attributed to Galen written originally in Arabic became accessible to Jewish readers who deftly adapted them through Hebrew translations. Over the course of the fifteenth century, Jewish physicians became students at the universities, receiving direct access to theoretical innovation concerning academic medical thinking. This continual evolution of medical expertise, in conversation with the institutions of medical oversight, enabled Jews to ascend to positions of respect and even power in Europe and beyond. As Efraim Lev has emphatically underlined, based on his recent study of letters, commercial documents, court orders, donor lists, and other documents from the Cairo Geniza, that Jewish practitioners were integral to the larger society they lived in, and assumed positions in hospitals, as community leaders, and even in the courts of the Muslim rulers. This dynamic informs the liminality of Jewish healers. In spite of their embeddedness in wider society and its cultures of healing, Jewish healing and medicine retained certain idiosyncratic aspects that set it apart from the surrounding culture. The body became a marker of cultural shared and distinct space.
The Goals Reached
This conference sought to address the complexities of Jewish pre-modern care for the body. The conference brought together an expert community from the U.S., Europe, and Israel who specialize in the issues of health, ill-health, medicine, and embodiment across various geographies and chronologies crucial to understanding pre-modern Jewish historical experience. It thus created an initial platform that will serve for researchers interested in the embodiment and healing, medicine, magic, and technology as a network to access the expertise of its other participants.
The eighteenth papers delivered over the course of two days brought together a variety of topics proved in a methodologically diverse manner. From the cultural construction of the female Jewish body to the responses to epidemic crises, the issues exemplified the historiographic diversity of the current research into healing, the body, and medicine. Reflecting on state of the art, the conference aimed to (1) create a collaborative space to exchange required skills and expertise needed to narrate the history of Jewish embodiment in more general terms. (2) The participants, moreover, reflected on the issues of constructing narratives concerning minorities and the location of Jewish history in connection to “general” history.
Overview of the Papers
The conference was divided into six panels and one keynote lecture. The panels were dedicated to (1) the interplay between mystical and medical thought; (2) the scientific expertise and its male rabbinic formulation and embrace; (3) responses to plagues; (4) the interplay between the body, materiality of healing, and the medical genres encoding the realities of the body and practical aspects of healing; (4) gendering of healing and the female body; and (5) the intersectional approach towards magical, devotional, and healing practices. The keynote speech, delivered by Dr. Eve Krakowski, an associate professor at Princeton, examined the sources for the social construction of mourning in the medieval Islamicate Middle East and its embodied nature imprinted on the sources from the Cairo Genizah.
The first panel was dedicated to the interaction of mystical and medical thought. Dr. Biti Roi (Shechter Institute, Israel) examined the description and deployment of the external and internal anatomy od the human body in mystical literature. Through chronologically diverse body of texts, from Tikkunei ha-Zohar to Hasidic materials, she traced the interaction of these materials with contemporary medical knowledge and its reception in the kabbalistic corpora. She put the emphasis on the inherent moralization of this hybrid discourse that, in parallel juxtaposed holy and impure along with good and evil. The control over one’s purity, therefore, enabled one’s control over evil. On the other hand, it bolstered the perception that evil is not accidental.
Dr. Assaf Tamari (Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Israel) asked about the location of medical knowledge and practices in the kabbalah and in the Lurianic kabbalah in particular. How medical were “the healers of the soul”? He argued that the Lurianic mysticism represents the maximalist approach in medicalizing the mystical thinking. The internalization of medical thinking was not only theoretical, although theoretical concepts are abundantly present in the writings of Lurianic thinkers. Medicine also gave an interpretative framework to the mystical practices, as many of its teachers—Vital in particular—were practising physicians.
In the discussion, Tamari especially highlighted the influence of the Muslim prophetic medicine on the Ottoman Jewish mystical practices, pointing out the need to understand the social context of such encounters. He stressed the need to establish more precise boundaries in the study of medical and bodily in mystical concepts. He argued that although medical content is always present in other streams and branches of esoteric schools, the extent and uses of medical practices and theory to ground them as bodily explicitly makes Lurianic kabbalah a unique case than a methodological example to be applied in further studies.
Prof. Ma’oz Kahana (Tel Aviv University) revisited his study of alchemy in the context of the Western Ashkenazi rabbinic culture of the eighteenth century. In his earlier work, he had shown how alchemical thinking about nature and transmutation was present in the works of eighteenth-century Ashkenazic rabbis. In the presentation delivered in Berlin, Prof. Kahana further explored the influence of alchemy on the more scholarly and bookish work of Altona-based Rabbi Jacob Emden.
Prof. Francois Guesnet (UCL) discussed the medical discourse in the work of Tobias Katz Cohen, an Ashkenazi learned physician, and his framing of Plica Polonica. Examining the ways in which physicians discussed this particular disease, Guesnet argued that Cohen, well-versed in Latin literature and lived experiences in various countries across Europe and Anatolia, manifested his medical authority by writing about Plica Polonica as the first physician in Hebrew. Guesnet, moreover, examined the shifting gender and social construction of this disease and its association with the Jews.
Dr. Leore Sachs-Shmueli (Bar Ilan University) examined the role of Hasidic rabbis as leaders in times of hardship. She analyzed the ways plagues were used to generate feelings of fear and hope in the writings of a Hasidic leader and the first Rebbe of the Munkacs dynasty, Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynov (d. 1841). Through the prism of the epidemic crisis, Sachs-Shmueli debunked the romanticized image of the Hasidic leaders. Instead, she portrayed Dynov as homo politicus who purposefully—and akin to other preachers—used the cholera epidemic to advance his religious and political goals, such as modifying and centralizing his power of the communal oversight over shechita.
Daniella Mauer (University of Amsterdam) examined the prolonged circulation of a recipe against plague, one containing spider in the walnut, from Dioscorides to the remedy book of Tzvi Hirsh ben Yerahmiel Chotsch (Amsterdam, 1703). She traced the shifting meaning and interpretations of such recipes that are medical and then magical but continuously read in the context of physical healing. Mauer also showed how paratext changes how Yiddish readers publish and read medical content.
Dr. Iryna Klymenko (Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, München) gave an example of how the body and embodied practices can become our methodological guideline in building new historiographies and historical narratives. She interrogated how early modern Polish Jews used non-kosher substances, lard, in everyday life and healing practices and practices framing nourishment. She showed that the use of lard—as the token non-kosher substance—was far more varied. It included remedies for external use (not internal!), encouraging contact with skin. As the central primary source, she selected a Yiddish regimen of the health of East European provenience published in 1613.
Prof. Efraim Lev (University of Haifa, Israel) gave participants an overview of materia medica found in the collection known as the Cairo Genizah. He thus probed the sources of pharmacological knowledge to examine the genre-related conventions framing the transmission of pharmacological sources. Prof. Lev therefore placed Jewish medical practitioners on the map of the Mediterranean medical map and sketched the need for future projects, in digital humanities in particular, that will further enhance the ability of researchers to identify and analyze fragmental materials.
Dr. Magdaléna Jánošíková (Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Israel) analyzed the practices of scholarly medical writing—in and outside of academia—to show how early modern medical practitioners composed their Hebrew and Yiddish medical works. She focused on the inclusion of the experiential and empirical content to examine the changing ways in which theoretical and passively received knowledge was linked and textualized in relationship to practice. Jánošíková presented this change as manifested in the Jewish culture of translation. She argued that the particular way early modern medical practitioners worked with books generated content that highlighted the applicability of medical knowledge. She claimed that although many writings of early modern Jewish doctors were bookish in content, they went beyond this bookish framework to connect the received knowledge with the author’s practice.
Prof. Carmen Caballero-Navas (University of Granada, Spain) explored the hitherto unpublished sections on women’s diseases in two medical books written in Hebrew in the second half of the 13th century. Ṣori ha-guf (Balm of the Body), written by Nathan ben Yo᾿el Falaquera, and anonymous Sefer ha-yosher (The Book of Perfection) served her to show how writers with practical medical experience strove to conceptual women’s diseases in a manner that accommodates their practice. Prof. Caballero-Navas provided a glimpse into the Hebrew medical literature to show how physicians attempted to assert their authority over the female body, which was already increasingly regulated by Jewish customs and traditions. She addressed how these authors constructed the sexual difference and gained knowledge about women’s medical practice.
Dr. Jordan Katz (the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) presented extent eighteenth-century records of births by Jewish midwives from Western Ashkenaz. Dr. Katz examined the capacity of these records to decentre the record-keeping as an exclusively male matter. To do so, she presented these records as a part of larger Western culture of record-keeping and emerging administrative practices. Dr. Katz then situated their content on the nexus of personal and communal life. This positioning allowed her to reframe how historians usually analyze record-keeping and other administrative male and institution-driven practices to propose the revision from the gendered perspective.
Dr. Andrea Gondos (Freie Universität, Berlin) addressed the repositories of vernacular medical and household knowledge through recipes from East-Central European manuscripts. She proposed a heuristic device to categorize and analyze recipes to probe the modalities of magical matter and material magic that frequently shared porous semantic boundaries in treating the female body. Looking into the materiality of healing the female body, Dr. Gondos examined a wide variety of material objects and natural substances interplay with the gendering of healing practices.
Dr. Alessia Bellusci (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice) addressed the porous boundaries between Christian and Jewish magical practices connected to childbirth. Dr. Bellusci probed a challenging set of sources, inquisitorial records, and polemical anti-Jewish literature as a potential source to reconstruct lived religion and the magical practices to protect the mother and the child during the delivery. After reviewing various material sources concerning the magical and devotional practices during the delivery, Dr. Bellusci focused on one motif in particular—the figure of the mother and the child, Mary and baby Jesus, and its use in the Jewish context in the form of a coin that was then tossed out.
Dr. Sivan Gottlieb (Harvard University) examined the fifteenth-century illuminated manuscripts of medical nature and analyzed the tradition of diagrammatic encryption of prognosing. Dr. Gottlieb reviewed the tradition of circular diagrams to think about the medical content and healing dynamically. She, furthermore, showed that diagrams can serve historians as guidelines that show us what type of information the physician has to know in order to diagnose the patients. In this way, the diagram served as an epistemic image bearing an imprint of the knowledge collection and its processing.
Gal Sofer (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel) called to reassess the study of demonological and exorcistic materials to see them as magical practices that integrated medical thinking. He presented exorcistic recipes and formulas found in demonic texts that were later recast along medical categories of diagnosing, prognosis, and treating the sick.
Dr. Eve Krakowski (Princeton) delivered the keynote lecture, putting her skills of conjuring up the complex lives and lived experiences of medieval Jews of Egypt into practice. Her project aims to reconstruct the culture of dying and mourning in the medieval Islamicate Middle East. Carefully reconstructing sources from the Cairo Geniza, Dr. Krakowski highlighted the contrast between the advice for mourners and their lived reality. The moral ideal among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish jurists and thinkers alike emphasized endurance as a desired expression of grief. The materials from the Cairo Geniza, family and business letters nonetheless suggest a different reality on the ground. Grief and mourning were physical, overpowering the senses, and worrisome for other family members. In her paper, Dr. Krakowski carefully located the tradition of writing consolation letters into the ecology of knowledge exchange in the Middle East to probe their contents for further information on the practices of mourning—those that were halakhically regulated—as well as the expression of grief and its depiction in private setting. Dr. Krakowski thus revealed the contours of the shared reality where a loss was omnipresent and threatening the cohesion of the family.
There were several significant discussions whose topics were recurringly invoked in the delivered papers and the following debates that push the boundaries of current research:
(1) Magical vs medical
“One man’s ‘magic’ is another man’s engineering.” With these words, Dr. Gondos opened her paper, borrowing the words of Robert Heinlein. This quote indeed encapsulates the interchangeable ways in which historians read into materials that are ‘medical’ and ‘magical’ at the same time, struggling to ascertain which of the two was more prevalent. These struggles continuously echo the blind spots of historiographic making, which pitted science against magic, rational against irrational, and physicians against rabbis. For over half a decade, historians have been unmaking this divide primary via tools of social history. By reconstructing the stories of Jewish individuals and collectives, historians from Dr. David Ruderman to Dr. Maoz Kahana have shown how Jewish lived experience and intellectual thought resisted the divisions into these modern binary categories.
In the case of healing, the historiography still offers unsatisfactory contextualization of the practices of healing viewed through the binaries of medicine as science and magic as kabbalah. This view is imposed on the sources on account of the institutionalization of the history of science and the prominence of kabbalah in the field of Jewish thought that made the two fields less mutually inclusive. These divides have been raised in particular by the paper by Dr. Assaf Tamari and the subsequent discussion, which strove to make an argument based on the intellectual history of Jewish thought.
This conference also provided an alternative path to reassess such binaries and to capture the mentalité of healing as medical, magical, and technical at the same time, through the prism of practice. In the papers of Daniella Mauer, Dr. Andrea Gondos, and others, the recipe-based analysis allowed re-reading the magical and medical from a non-divisive, non-binary perspective that required further social setting.
The methodological turn towards the body as a centre of praxis was the most clearly articulated in the work of Dr. Iryna Klymenko, who, by the reconstruction of the ways in which lard was used and applied on the body, achieved a more nuanced narration of difference and othering in the context of confessionalising eastern Europe.
(2) Gendering the body and healing
The paper by Dr. Klymenko has also revealed the recurring problem in the history of healing and medicine—namely, our inability to capture the role of women in the social landscape that gave healing its societal and communal meaning. This issue was explicitly raised in the debate with Prof. Carmen Caballero-Navas, who urged historians to think about the social setting of healing. Although historians have been showing that the domestic nature of healing was essentially women’s domain, the Jewish sources (may they be Hebrew or Yiddish) obscure this gendered reality of healing. They offer little insight into how healing in Jewish families and communities was also a women-led initiative.
The contribution of Dr. Jordan Katz, who presented materials produced by women, has a specific significance. Yet it was clear that this rare evidence is not available to all historians working on different geographical regions and periods. There, nevertheless, are ways to compensate for the lack of women-made sources. We are still awaiting new social histories of the family and the community in Central and Eastern Europe and its expansion to the countries that became subjects to colonial conquest. These studies must closely consider the labour of women and their role in local and family economies in connection to their domestic and public roles as carers and healers. Secondly, historians have to pay more attention to the way in which male figures—healers, rabbis, patriarchs—aimed to gain authority over the female body and control over the content of healing knowledge circulating among networks of women. These aspects were well addressed and represented in the conference and brought to display more innovative uses of secondary sources.
(3) Re-evaluating the sources and their use
Finally, the discussions generated debates about various primary sources and their ability to grasp, articulate, but also disarticulate or erase pots of knowledge that had their social, cultural, and gendered setting. For instance, Dr. Alessia Bellusci considered the role of orality in the transmission of healing practices and their surprising emergences in external sources, such as anti-Jewish polemics and inquisitorial documents. Here the sources that framed Jewish practice as flawed offer a rare glimpse into practices that internal writings (naturally, omitting the everyday realities as self-evident) stay silent. In a careful contextualization, including the thorough understanding of pre-modern birthing practices and the material culture it generated, Dr. Bellusci thus reconstructed the use of an essentially Christian symbol on a coin as a reappropriated magical object for particular Jewish healing practice.
The differing content of Jewish and non-Jewish sources raises the question concerning the method of composing medical books. This problem was tackled by Dr. Magdalena Janosikova, who showed that the composition relied more on non-Jewish (Latin and German) works, but how their writings were composed invited the incorporation of one’s own experience. Dr. Janosikova argued that the reproduction of texts happened hand in hand with reconsidering their practical applicability. The debate with Prof. Francois Guesnet further revealed the need to consider the consequences of such writing and its place in reconstructing the histories of health and medicine. As Dr. Janosikova clarified, this type of writing did not only articulate the expansion of medical knowledge into vernacular cultures (the inclusion of Slavic names of plants into Latin, Greek, German, etc., repositories). It equally generated erasure of the vernacular practice, as the re-reading of medical issues took place in the universalising framework of the Latin scholarship. This is further reinforced by the fact that although these “translations” invited individualized content and re-evaluation of the practice, they generated responses that were positive, supportive, or open-ended. It never generated disagreement or a debate beyond the patronizing admonitions of the author—the medical practitioner who claimed the rhetoric authority (not factual) over the practices of his co-religionists. This debate thus showed that the materials produced by the learned physicians represent a type of source not suitable for capturing the practices on the ground, though bearing their valuable imprints and articulating the political power that came into fruition a century later.
Conference presentations will be invited for submission to an edited volume. We have received an invitation from Prof. Elliot Wolfson the academic editor of Journal of Jewish Though and Philosophy to create a special issue based on the conference presentations and its topic, medicine, healing, and bodily care among Jews from the medieval to the early modern period. Another option would be to do a special issue of the journal, Jewish History. The convenors of the conference, Dr. Andrea Gondos and Dr. Magdalena Janosikova, will co-edit this special issue. We will collect submissions in February 2023. The collection of essays should be submitted to the journal in July 2023.