These are the questions posed by physician-writer Sherwin B. Nuland in his masterful essay, "My Son, the Doctor," in the Sept. 5 issue of The New Republic. The answers he provided were numerous, and filled with resonance about Jewish history and theology.
Nuland stated that, though the origin and intent of this devotion to medicine "are now obscured by strata of time and cultural change," they are there to see – if we can "cast aside" our "religious skepticism."
Not surprisingly, for a writer who just published a biography of Maimonides, he began his examination of the subject with the great physician-philosopher, and his preface to the exegesis of Pirke Avot, "Ethics of the Fathers."
There, Nuland found a central "Maimonidian precept": The reason for keeping a body healthy "is to enable the unhindered pursuit of knowledge of God, and of the perfect morality for which God is the model. The study of medicine, in sum, is a religious activity."
Maimonides was simply echoing a thesis advanced by the rabbis of the Talmud, said Nuland, "who spoke of the physician as a messenger – or in certain ways even a partner – of God." This idea comes directly from the Torah. "The stringent directives about public health, hygiene, preventive medicine and sanitation laid out in Leviticus are expanded in the Talmud to cover every facet of personal behavior."
The Talmud sages wished to link physical and moral purity; maintenance of health means maintenance of life. This is the obligation of every Jew, even if it means disobeying certain commandments. "All Jewish law," writes Nuland, "even the Decalogue, may be violated in the interest of saving a life, the only exceptions being the injunctions against blasphemy, adultery, incest and murder."
One of the phrases central to Judaism is "First choose life"; God enjoins us to do so. And with the word "choose," said Nuland, God is stressing that humans have freedom of will.
In the notion of free will, wrote Nuland, we find the essence of the Jewish attachment to healing. "The concept is repeatedly proclaimed in scripture," he stated, "in the rabbinic literature, and in the writings of many Jewish philosophers. Throughout the Jewish tradition, one is aware of the tension between the concept of God's omnipotent will and the concept of humankind's free will, manifest in an unspoken compromise that leaves the care of the body to man. In this matter, the intervention of God is not to be assumed."
As for the other answers, I suggest you examine this extraordinary essay.