Theses Doctoral

“The Best of Doctors Go to Hell”: Rabbinic Medical Culture in Late Antiquity (200-600 CE)

Shinnar, Shulamit

This dissertation explores how rabbinic texts produced between the first and sixth century CE related to medical practice, particularly the network of medical practitioners, medical care institutions, and seekers of medical care in late antique Palestine. Drawing on methodology from critical medical anthropology, the history of science, post-colonial studies, and disability studies, I examine Palestinian rabbinic sources within the broader cultural context of the Roman Empire and ancient medicine. Focusing on rabbinic depictions of doctors, midwives, patients, and institutions of medical care, I study the implications of these literary representations for understanding rabbinic medical epistemology, including the production of medical knowledge and medical decision-making, as well as the role rabbinic literature assigned to rabbis within these networks of medical care. As rabbinic literature constructed rabbis as legal experts and communal leaders, exploring the ways in which these texts presented rabbis as seeking medical care and advice from medical practitioners provides an important case study to consider how rabbinic texts both negotiated interactions with experts and sources of expertise other than their own and understood the contours of the rabbinic role within provincial life.
My study highlights the fraught nature of seeking healing in the ancient world and examines how, in rabbinic literature, medical encounters between doctors and patients became performance sites for ethnic, religious, and gender difference. Indeed, rabbinic literature exhibited a profound distrust of medical practitioners and sought to undermine the expertise of doctors and midwives, presenting their treatments as dangerous or transgressive. I argue that, to combat this distrust, the texts constructed a unique role for the rabbis: intermediaries between seekers of care and medical practitioners. The texts imagined the rabbis evaluating the trustworthiness of doctors, consulting doctors alongside patients, and ensuring that the poor had access to affordable medical care.
The introductory chapter frames the context of the dissertation, the methodologies employed, and addresses the historiography of rabbinic medicine. After the introduction, each chapter addresses the rabbinic relationship to a different component of ancient medical networks. The second chapter addresses the rabbinic representation of doctors, especially the rabbinic concern with the danger involved in seeking medical care and the resulting distrust of medical practitioners. I also examine the position of the rofe uman, both as an example of a medical practitioner who is seen as uniquely trustworthy and as a key mechanism within rabbinic medical decision-making. The third chapter studies rabbinic depictions of midwives, considering the representation of Jewish and non-Jewish midwives. The fourth chapter examines the role of patients alongside that of medical practitioners in the production of medical knowledge for adjudicating ritual law and the effects of gender in this equation. The fifth chapter turns to the question of ancient healthcare and the rise of medical care for the poor as a key political issue for the church in the fourth century CE. In this context, I draw on disability studies to analyze rabbinic views on the communal responsibility to provide care and support for people who are both impoverished and sick.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Berkowitz, Beth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 29, 2019