Dr. Sherwin Nuland: Personal Responsibility & Humanitarianism in Medicine
Wading in where others might fear to tread or never think to go, Dr. Sherwin Nuland, whose dazzling nine-book and prolific article-writing career reached best-sellerdom with How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994, took another surprising turn with the publication last year of a wrenching ambivalent autobiographical narrative, Lost In America: A Journey With My Father. With Maimonides, out this month as the second in a new series “of short books on Jewish subjects by prominent literary authors,” Dr. Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, is doing it again: delivering an absorbing, passionate, eloquent, carefully researched monograph designed for the general reader on a significant subject that he sees from a distinct point of view. All his books, even the disturbingly brilliant memoir, seem informed by themes that explore the way the scientific mind and human body work, and each in a memorable way implies that humanitarian impulses must lie at the core of rational analyses of how we live.
The literary series, a collaboration between Nextbook, a new literary venture, and Schocken Books’ Jewish Encounters, is designed to promote writings “that illuminate 3,000 years of Jewish civilization.” Though supported by the Rainbow Foundation, a philanthropic organization formed in 1999 “to enhance connections among Jews while respecting differences in religious backgrounds and commitments to observance,” the series, which launched last month with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s A Life of David, is clearly intended for anyone who appreciates Saul Bellow’s observation: “We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next.” A sense of moral or ethical imperative has always informed Sherwin Nuland’s writings and never more so than with his book on Maimonides that comes out in conjunction with a national conference to be held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on November 6th – “Jews and Medicine: In the Footsteps of Maimonides: The Jewish Doctor as Healer, Scientist and Intellectual.”
Nuland, whose articulate conversational manner is inflected with humor and wit, is particularly delighted that Nextbook assigned Maimonides to him, a pairing that gives him an opportunity to make accessible a daunting intellectual, perhaps the premier sage in Jewish intellectual history, an erudite 12th century philosopher, theologian, astronomer, community leader (also known as the Rambam, an acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon), and court physician to Saladin. Maimonides’ great compendia of Jewish laws and medical lore, written at a time of horrific persecution, forced exodus and conversions, have proved formidable even for the most scholarly. Awed at first, Dr. Nuland finally concluded that if “My Monides” could be lost to erudition, then “Maimonides would be lost to all.” And so he burrowed in for three years, reading, talking, taking long walks and thinking—”my way of working”—never knowing where he might wind up but trusting to “the power of the unconscious mind” that would lead him, and to surprise. He thought he’d find a stiff and rigid philosopher, but met instead a gifted lonely intellectual, whose immersion in Greek thought prompted commentaries on health based on clinical observation and experience that sound remarkably modern. And a rationalist of faith in and dedication to the survival of the Jewish people.
Unlike the superstitious, Maimonides did not see God as the cause of or source of cures. If medicine became, from Talmudic times onward, the “ultimate Jewish profession”—so many Jews are Nobel laureates!”—it is because young Jews who are attracted to medicine, even those who think they are separated from religious precepts, “carry an intellectual memory of Jewish cultural principles” and feel motivated by years of ethical tradition to serve, heal, and address ethical problems. Such views, inherent in Jewish theology and in the medical wisdom of Maimonides who was influenced by Greek metaphysics, implicitly charge doctors to right action, and not just for those of their own religion. In a recent interview with Nextbook, Dr. Nuland acknowledges that his going to Sri Lanka to help out after the tsunami, was “in the spirit of Maimonides.” “This is a specifically Jewish thing . . . that if you find yourself called upon by a patient . . . you must treat it as though you are the only person who can do it. It’s a sense of great personal responsibility.” A remarkable humanitarianism from someone who went to a medical school that had at the time not one Jewish professor, a stringent quota on the admission of Jews, and an applicant who had changed his name from Nudelman.#
For details about the conference, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 917-606-8285.