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Book review: The Anatomy of Jewish Law

If Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is New York’s Funniest Rabbi, then Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, MD, is New York’s funniest rabbi doctor. In his new book, The Anatomy of Jewish Law (O-U Press), his dry sense of humor abounds. From the subtitle of A Fresh Dissection of the Relationship Between Medicine, Medical History, and Rabbinic Literature, to the chapter on The Rabbinic Conception of Conception: An Exercise in Fertility, and more, Reichman drops many bits of humor. However, between those bits of humor, he has written a fascinating and engaging book on the intersection of medicine and halacha.

Countless books attempt to reconcile Torah and science. From Six Days of Cosmology and Evolution: A Scientific Commentary on the Genesis Text with Rabbinic Sources, to Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things and more. What Reichman does in part is reconcile seeming contradictions between modern medicine and Talmudic medicine and anatomy.

A point he makes repeatedly is to understand medicine within its historical context. While the knee-jerk response is to look at the medical approach of Galen and, to a large part, Talmudic medicine, which assumed Galen to be accurate, and say it was incorrect. At the time, it was a legitimate approach. It is worth noting that during the period of the Geonim, a ban was enacted on the use of Talmudic remedies. It is also essential not to superimpose current medical knowledge onto the sages of the Talmud, as that will inevitably lead to faulty interpretations.

Even though medical technology is constantly advancing, while simultaneously seeing mortality rates go down, cutting-edge procedures today, which we view as life-saving, such as thoracic aortic dissection repair, bladder cystectomy, separation of conjoined twins, and more, will be viewed in 500 years as primitive and barbaric. But alas, that is the history of medicine. Only by understanding the relationship between medical history and halacha can one understand the therapies of the times and the approach the rabbis used.

As to understanding medical halacha in its historical context, an intriguing example Reichman gives is the healing method of Mumia. All the rage hundreds of years ago, Mumia was a medical preparation scraped out from embalmed Egyptian mummies. Like charlatans today selling bogus new-age therapies, scammers then would sell bogus Mumia from fresh corpses. Reichman uses Mumia to illustrate how an appreciation of medical history can enlighten one’s understanding of Jewish sources.

One of the most contentious issues in the intersection of halacha and medicine is that of autopsies. Within halacha, every discussion of autopsies references the responsum of R’ Yechezkel HaLevi Landau (1713 –1793), the Noda Biyhudah on the topic. R’ Landau forbade the autopsy at the time, and his approach has been quite influential in the roughly 250 years since he wrote it.

The inquiry that led to his forbidding an autopsy was due to an outbreak of bladder stones in London. Reichman writes that urinary bladder stones were quite prevalent in England. However, despite this fact, R’ Landau still ruled that an autopsy to benefit other potential patients with this disease would be forbidden. In what was to become one of his most famous rulings, he opposed autopsies, except those related to a specific, immediate, urgent need.

One can speculate that while urinary bladder stones may have been prevalent in England, this may not have been the case in Eastern Europe, the domain of R’ Landau. Reichman then drops a bombshell that had R’ Landau been aware of the high prevalence of the disease in England; he may have permitted the autopsy. The halachic trajectory for autopsies was set by R’ Landau, but Reichman thinks he may have taken a more permissive approach had he known the facts on the ground in England. At this point, it is a halachic Monday morning quarterback, and there is no going back.

Reichman is both a talmid chacham and a world-class physician. He is also a gifted writer, and this tour de force of his provides the reader with a deep understanding of the Talmudic sources and the history of medicine. He does not claim to provide all the answers and often leaves the question unanswered. While describing the illusive luz bone, despite its religious significance, it is pretty evident from his sources that the location of this elusive bone remains obscure to this day.

While written by a physician, the book is meant for a general audience, and one does not need a medical background. Reichman’s book is an invaluable resource on the topic and a fascinating read. He has done a tremendous service in bringing these topics to light. And for the serious reader, they would be guilty of intellectual malpractice if they did not read this vital work.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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