Over the last six months the plight of medical professionals struggling against the coronavirus has been a tragically reoccurring headline. Throughout the pandemic people have sought to thank doctors, nurses, and others for all that they have done. It will surprise no one that, with a few well-known exceptions, Jewish thinkers generally take a positive view of medicine in general and doctors in particular. The Talmud even argues that the Torah itself empowers doctors to heal those who are ill. However, a Mishnah in Masechet Kiddushin views doctors in a strikingly different manner and claims that the best doctors are destined for Gehinnom. But why does the Mishnah take such a negative view of medicine? Why are doctors viewed as being akin to donkey drivers, an apparently deceit laden profession in the days of the Talmud?
The medieval Talmudic commentator Rabbi Menachem ben Solomon Meiri argues that doctors are destined for Gehinnom for two reasons. He writes, they are punished because they give up and do not practice or try to heal people when they should. However, he also claims that doctors are punished because they often claim to know the causes of disease and how to treat people even when that is not the case and, in the process, cause greater bloodshed.
There is a striking tension between these two explanations. On the one hand the Meiri claims doctors are punished because they do not intervene and on the other he argues that they are punished because they intercede when they should not. But which is it? Is caution a vice or a virtue?
Later commentators explain that the doctors who are destined for Gehinnom are those that needlessly cause suffering and death because they are arrogant. As a result of their hubris they do not consult with their colleagues and rely only on their own judgement. Alternatively, their arrogance leads them to practice without the permission of the Beit Din, as an unlicensed professional, and as a result, even if they are an expert, they are liable for any damages they cause. It is easy to see how arrogance and overconfidence could lead to tragedy, but what of the Meiri’s other claim that doctors are destined for Gehinnom not because they are arrogant but because they give up too easily.
The 14th century rabbi, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher writes that doctors should never say why did God afflict me by giving me the skill and burden of healing. Although they are right to be cautious when dealing with matters of life and death, they cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to share their gift with others and provide care for their community. It is one who has the ability to heal but withholds this strength that is destined for Gehinnom.
What is true in the case of doctors is equally true for others as well. We often think of teshuva, repentance, as being about overcoming our negative qualities or changing specific negative patterns of behavior that we can engage in and we certainly should seek to be humbler and more understanding of others in the coming year. However, teshuva is also an opportunity to reflect on the unique strengths and gifts that we possess and ask ourselves if we have been sharing them with our community or holding back because we do not know how our contribution will be received. If we withhold our individual talents from those around us, we too might be destined for Gehinnom because ultimately it is only by sharing our unique strengths and abilities that we can help a world in need of healing.