David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Parshat Ki Tavo – Shine a light

Why might a blind person need to illuminate the area that he or she cannot see? To help those around provide the necessary assistance (Ki Tavo)
Portrait of John Taylor. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of John Taylor. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

John Taylor claimed to be the foremost eye doctor of the 18th century. In 1727, he published An Account of the Mechanism of the Eye dedicated to his teacher, the groundbreaking British surgeon William Cheselden. He also authored several other books on the structure of the eye and various treatments.

Taylor was not only a surgeon, but also fantastic at self-promotion. Rather than operate out of an office or a hospital he traveled all over Europe in what S Wood describes (based on Taylor’s own writings) as almost sounding like a touring entertainment troupe:

He travelled in an impressive manner with two coaches and six black horses, five of which were said to be blind in consequence of their master having exercised his skill upon them. Ten servants in livery, besides gentlemen companions, all paid by himself, were also included in the equipage. It is said that his coach was painted over with eyes and bore the motto, ” Qui dat videre, dat vivere” (“He who enables them to see, gives life.”) His arrival at a town was accompanied by a shower of leaflets, and preliminary notices in the press prepared the people to behold, “A man, who not only while living is admired by the whole of Europe, but also after his death may attain a distinguished place in the history of learning.

Taylor treated the historian Edward Gibbon. And he claimed to be “Ophthalmiater Royal to the Pope and the Emperor,” and to have operated on many other members of various royal families. He was appointed Royal Oculist to King George II in 1736. He also claimed a connection to a mythical Princess of Georgia and the Viceroy of the Indies.

At some point, Taylor also gave himself the title “Chevalier” meaning “knight,” though there was no evidence that any royal had given him that honor.

From 1727, when he left Norwich, until some time after 1759, when he set up a surgery in Gravel Street, London, he moved almost constantly from one European country to the next.

However, not everyone believed he was the expert doctor he claimed to be. In 1744, the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, wrote to the Scots Magazine disavowing any connection to Taylor.

Whereas one John Taylor, has inserted in the newspapers of this city advertisements stuffed with gross injurious falsehoods, we… declare that not one of the Professors of Medicine in this university ever attended a single lecture of his… his operations attended with indifferent success. The sight of many was made worse; he promises cure to incurables, and is oppressive with fees. Our object in this declaration is to prevent people in other places which he threatens to visit, from being imposed upon.

George Coats (in The Chevalier Taylor, p. 193) described Taylor as a quack.

In professional matters his knowledge was good; he was a shrewd observer and not without original ideas; but his actual practice was deeply tainted with the dishonest arts of the quack. Many elements go to the formation of the complete charlatan-bombast, effrontery, dishonesty, ignorance. All these qualities Taylor showed in perfection-except ignorance, and this is his chief condemnation.

Samuel Johnson, in his famous dictionary, gives the following definition of a quack:

A vain boastful pretender to physick; one who proclaims his own medical abilities in publick places.

In fact, Johnson may have specifically had Taylor in mind, because the two had met each other, and Johnson was left completely unimpressed, writing:

Taylor was the most ignorant man I ever knew … he was an instance of how far impudence will carry ignorance.

In his defense, Taylor was probably not much worse than any number of contemporary eye doctors. In an age without anesthetic and before any knowledge of bacteria or infection, if a doctor could help one third of the patients he was considered successful.

So, Taylor embodied distasteful self-aggrandizement, had the habit of leaving town quickly before his patients had removed their bandages, and constantly claimed success. But the main thing that set him apart from his peers are two famous musicians he operated on — Johannes Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

Taylor describes this in very peculiar words:

But to proceed, I have seen a vast variety of singular animals, such as dromedaries, camels, &c and particularly at Leipsick, where a celebrated master of music, who had already arrived to his 88th year, received his sight by my hands; it is with this very man that the famous Handel was first educated, and with whom I once thought to have had the same success, having all circumstances in his favour, motions of the pupil, light, &L but upon drawing the curtain, we found the bottom defective, from a paralytic disorder.

I have no idea why Taylor mentions dromedaries or camels, but let’s focus on some of the other errors in his report.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Although today Bach is considered the greatest of the Baroque composers, in his lifetime he was not necessarily thought of as a “celebrated master of music.” In England, his son (his 18th child) Johann Christian Bach was more famous. The “English Bach” taught the young Mozart for five months and had a big influence on him. Whereas Johann Sebastian was mostly only well known to other expert musicians.

Also, Bach was not 88. He was only 65 years old when he died.

In March 1750, Taylor operated on the maestro — he probably performed couching (I’ll spare you the details of the operation). And then again, some time between April 4 and April 8 — and this operation was likely much worse. Afterwards, Bach was left completely blind and in tremendous pain. On July 28, 1750 — only three months later — Bach passed away due to complications from the surgery.

Bach was a contemporary of Handel — they were born within a month of each other in 1685 — and lived only 130 kilometers apart. But despite Taylor’s claim that Bach taught the composer of the Messiah, the two never met. In 1719, Bach traveled 35 kilometers (22 miles) in the hope of seeing Handel, but by the time he arrived, Handel had left town.

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Handel was a huge celebrity in London. Shortly after Bach’s death, Handel noticed that his sight was failing. On February 13, 1751, he noted in his score of his oratorio Jephtha that his left eye was weakening. In May 1752 he was treated for a cataract by a surgeon named William Bromfield. At first, his eyesight improved, but then it continued to worsen.

In 1758, Handel and Taylor were both in Tunbridge Wells. Other than Taylor’s own claim that he operated on the composer, an anonymous poem was published in the London Chronicle, entitled, “On the Recovery of the Sight of the Celebrated Mr. Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor.”

Whether Taylor actually operated or not, Handel’s sight did not improve, and his health deteriorated until he died on the night of April 13-14, 1759.

So Chevalier John Taylor may have operated on, and caused the deaths of, two of the best-known 18th century composers. And of course, in both cases he claimed that his surgery was successful.

Ironically, and sadly, Taylor himself lost his sight towards the end of his life. He spent his twilight years in total darkness, and nobody came to cure him. He died in 1772.

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, has a long list of curses that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to keep the Torah’s commandments. One of those is to be afflicted with blindness (Deuteronomy 28:29):

And you shall grope around at midday like a blind man gropes in the darkness, and you way shall not succeed. You shall be oppressed and stolen all the days with no savior.

The Talmud (Megillah 24b) relates that Rabbi Yossi was troubled by this verse. He couldn’t understand why it specifically mentions a blind person groping in darkness. What difference does it make to someone who can’t see whether it is daytime or nighttime?

Until once an incident happened. I was walking in the darkness and blackness of night and I saw a blind person walking on the road carrying a torch. I said to him, ‘My son, why do you need a torch?’ He replied, As long as I have a torch in my hand, people see me and save me from the ditches, from the thorns and thistles.

Obviously, the Torah is speaking metaphorically when it lists the curse of the Jewish people stumbling and groping in the darkness like a blind person. Yet the meaning is clear. If we fail to live up to our responsibilities, not only will be blind and not know which way to go, but we will also be in complete darkness, so that nobody else will be able to direct us either, or even to see that we are lost or in danger.

A torch in the darkness. (CC BY, Panther40k/ Wikimedia Commons)

It is our task to fulfill the commandments. But it is also our task to help those who are stumbling as much as possible. This is not always easy — sometimes it is hard to even tell who needs help.

One of the greatest and worst tools we have been given in the past few years is social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others, can be used to spy on us, to influence us, and can lead to hatred, fights and even occasionally death.

But they can also be used as wonderful tools for good. Often, someone in need will turn to social media when they have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes the metaphorical torch that the blind person carries is an online post. They may not even be asking for help and perhaps don’t even know how to describe their situation.

Yet all of us, if we care, can read the signs, offer physical aid, empathy, advice or prayers, and help that person avoid the ditches, the thorns and thistles. And in this way, we can each do our part to minimize the curse and help the blind.

Instead of quackery covered in eyeballs, we can genuinely make a difference.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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