In fifteen states scattered around the country, fifty young doctors are now interning who never took the Hippocratic oath. At their graduation they chanted instead the Declaration of Geneva (renouncing genocide) and listened to a recitation of the Physician’s Prayer allegedly composed by the 12th-century rabbi-philosopher-physician Moses Maimonides. The fifty are the first graduates of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, the only medical school in America under Jewish auspices. For some, they symbolize the happy reunion of medicine and Judaism; for others, they revive age-old doubts about the wisdom of mixing science with religion; for still others, they mark one more chapter in the sad tale of a rabbinical seminary gone astray.
Late in the summer of 1955 these young men, making their first visit to the new school, were ushered into a small wooden house near the corner of Newport and Morris Park Avenues, in the Westchester Heights section of the Bronx. Here, to the rhythm of building crews fighting time, they registered. In September, they returned to begin classes in a building still lacking its upper floors. Today the wooden house, long since converted into a construction shack, is dwarfed by sixteen acres of modern structures, walks, greenery, and natural rock outcroppings.
Einstein’s major teaching hospitals are immediately alongside the medical school campus, across Morris Park Avenue, on 63 acres of very neatly kept grass that reach all the way to Pelham Parkway. Actually, this is the new Bronx Municipal Hospital Center, consisting of the Abraham Jacobi Hospital, the Nathan B. Van Etten Hospital, and a staff residence building—all gray-white like the medical school buildings. Under an agreement with the city, the Center is completely run and staffed by the College of Medicine. On a 125-acre site the other side of Eastchester Road, the state has begun construction of a 1,500-bed, $70 million psychiatric hospital that will provide both in-patient and day-hospital care, and with which Einstein hopes to develop closely integrated programs.
Being the heart of a $150 million, 3,000-bed, 200-acre “medical city” puts Yeshiva University’s medical school in an imposing position. What is more, it explains Einstein’s impressive research grants (covering a wide range of fields from cancer to gerontology and totaling well over $20 million annually) and the college’s strong faculty. Attracting distinguished faculty to a new college of medicine is difficult under any circumstances; attracting them to one under Orthodox Jewish auspices proved to be a special problem. Some of the professors offered posts at Einstein openly wondered if they were being asked to teach in a school founded on a prayer in a renovated Lower East Side tenement. But a visit to the buildings under construction, a survey of the plans, and a recognition of the stress being placed on research facilities helped to dispel any such impression.
Today Einstein is staffed by men like Dr. Abraham White (a widely recognized authority on steroid chemistry who taught at the Yale School of Medicine for fifteen years and helped set up the University of California School of Medicine in Los Angeles); Dr. Leo M. Davidoff (an internationally known neuro-surgeon, who has taught at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and been associated with numerous hospitals); Dr. Irving M. London (formerly of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and a winner both of the Welch Fellowship in Internal Medicine and of the Theobald Smith Award in Medical Sciences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science); Dr. Henry L. Barnett (a former staff member at the Cornell University Medical College and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a recipient of the 1949 E. Mead Johnson Award for Research in Pediatrics); and Dr. Alfred Gilman (co-author of the most famous basic reference work on drugs and their action in the body).
While discussions of the relationship between Judaism and medicine almost always lead to the mention of Maimonides, this relationship is probably as old as the Biblical “I am the Lord, thy Physician” (Exodus 15: 26). Some scholars contend that medicine was taught as an independent subject at the Talmudic academies of Babylonia and Palestine; even those who disagree admit that it was a major topic of interest. Certainly by medieval times Judaism and medicine were firmly joined. Cecil Roth, in The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, estimates that half of all medieval rabbis were practicing doctors. Throughout the Middle Ages, too, medicine headed the secular curriculum of many Jewish schools.
This love for medicine was motivated to a degree by practical considerations. The rabbis of old were teachers, scholars, and community leaders who did not depend upon the whims of congregations for their existence; they earned their living in the professions, or as tradesmen and even as laborers. Medicine exerted a powerful attraction because doctors lived comfortably and were accorded great honor in both the non-Jewish and Jewish communities. Often it opened doors otherwise locked to Jews, for the tendency to regard medicine as an art rather than a science frequently made medical knowledge the key to acceptance by universities.
Apart from all that, medicine has traditionally occupied a unique place in Jewish law and society. The esteem in which it is held can be seen from the assertion by Gedaliah ibn Yachiah, contemporary of the codifier Rabbi Joseph Karo, that medicine is “a precious and famous branch of wisdom, since it is a ladder standing on earth and leading man to perceive the greatness of the Holy One and His wonderful deeds in the heaven and on earth.” The Shulchan Aruch, which contains several laws regarding health and protection of life and limb that must be observed more strictly than ritual commandments, states unequivocally that healing “is a religious precept, and it is included in the category of saving life.”
Indeed, Judaism’s attitude toward preserving life is the ultimate foundation of its high regard for medicine. The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 74a) says bluntly that to save his life a man may transgress all of the Torah’s commandments, except the prohibitions against worshiping idols, adultery (which here means living with a married woman), or committing murder. This derives from the Biblical exhortation, “Ye shall therefore keep My statutes and ordinances, which if a man do he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18: 5). Oral tradition interprets the phrase “live by them” literally, rejecting the suggestion that it implies “die for them.”
The Shulchan Aruch (based on the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbat) further declares that one who unhesitatingly violates the Sabbath to help a critically ill person is worthy of special praise, that one who pauses to ask his rabbi’s approval is a murderer, and that the rabbi whose opinion is sought is despicable because he has failed to educate his people properly about the importance of human life. It also warns that one is not to seek out either a non-Jew, a woman, or a child to commit the transgression, lest he give the impression of being reluctant to violate the Sabbath to help the dangerously ill1
Despite the traditional link between Judaism and medicine, and despite the new college’s auspicious beginnings, Einstein continues to stir controversy within the Jewish community. There are, for example, the rumors: that at Einstein classes are held on Friday night and Saturday; that the library is open on Saturday; that Orthodox boys encounter discrimination at admissions interviews; that wearing a skullcap on the premises is discouraged; and that it is hard to get kosher food at the college. Even in the halls of Yeshiva University’s Main Academic Center, Einstein has been mockingly dubbed the rofe cholim u-matir issurim, “healer of the sick and permitter of the forbidden”—a play on the words of an amidah blessing which praises God’s eternal might.
Yet the College of Medicine Bulletin lists no classes on the Sabbath or any Jewish holiday, and students readily confirm that none are held. Third- and fourth-year students are on hospital call seven days a week, but the Orthodox are not required to answer calls on the Sabbath—although there is precedent for such activity in certain circumstances. The library, too, is closed on the Sabbath until sundown.
The charge of discrimination against Orthodox Jews seems to be based on the feeling that Yeshiva’s medical school should, on the contrary, give some special consideration to Orthodox applicants. In borderline cases, it is argued, religion ought to be considered in a candidate’s favor. The admissions committee does not agree. To date, roughly 10 per cent of the student body has been made up of Orthodox boys.2
On the matter of wearing a skullcap, the procedure at the College of Medicine conforms to university policy: in Yeshiva’s undergraduate schools, whether secular or religious, skullcaps must be worn both by students and faculty; in Yeshiva’s secular graduate schools, which are coeducational and nondenominational, everyone may do as he pleases. At Einstein, students wearing skullcaps can be seen in the laboratories, hospitals, and streets. Several young men known to be religious do not wear hats, giving rise to the impression that they are inhibited by a hostile atmosphere. More likely, these students had never worn hats outside Yeshiva’s environs as undergraduates. This is hardly uncommon; many who are otherwise strictly observant and would never keep their heads uncovered at home or when eating nevertheless do not wear hats while going about their daily activities.
Particularly perplexing is the charge that kosher food is difficult to get at the medical school. There is a handsomely appointed, strictly kosher dining room in the Student Recreation Center, and like all Yeshiva dining rooms, it is open to the public. Before the completion of the Center, kosher food was available at two restaurants built by the university only a block away from the Science building. In the hospitals, where the kitchens are run by the city, the food is not kosher. This has worked some hardship on Orthodox students assigned to the hospitals who are too busy to go out for meals. But the difficulty is hardly insurmountable.
Another major factor in the controversy surrounding Einstein is, on the one hand, ignorance of what Yeshiva has grown to be, and, on the other, unhappiness with the knowledge of what it has become. The origins of the institution can be traced back to 1886, with the founding on New York’s Lower East Side of Yeshiva Etz Chaim, devoted exclusively to religious studies. Ten years later, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary opened in the same area. In 1915, the two merged under the direction of Dr. Bernard Revel, who set the pattern for what was to become the second largest Jewish-sponsored university in the world (Hebrew University in Jerusalem being the first). From 1915 on new branches began to sprout, and in 1928 Yeshiva College for Men, the first American liberal arts college under Jewish auspices, opened its doors to students. At the time, the very idea of a rabbinical seminary founding a secular school of higher learning met with much the same kind of criticism that has greeted the College of Medicine today.
In 1941 Dr. Revel died. Two years later, Dr. Samuel Belkin became Yeshiva’s second president, inaugurating a new period of growth. University status was achieved in 1945; a state charter authorizing the opening of medical and dentistry schools was obtained in 1950. At the close of the academic year 1959, 777 degrees and diplomas were conferred by seventeen different branches of the university.
There are nine schools—running from 184th Street to 187th Street on Amsterdam Avenue in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan—at what is now called the Main Academic Center: Yeshiva College for Men, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the Graduate School of Mathematical Sciences, the Bernard Revel Graduate School, the Harry Fischel School for Higher Jewish Studies, the Teachers Institute for Men, the Israel Institute, the Cantorial Training Institute, and the Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
The remaining schools are spread over six teaching centers in three boroughs. They include the Stern College for Women and Teachers Institute for Women, the Graduate School of Education and Graduate School of Social Work, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Sue Golding Graduate Division of Medical Sciences, the Yeshiva University High School for Boys of Brooklyn, the Yeshiva University High School for Girls of Brooklyn, and the Yeshiva University High School for Girls of Manhattan. Recently, Dr. Belkin outlined a $30 million, ten-year building program to meet the demands of the university’s growing student body, which now totals 4,600.
Obviously, the name “Yeshiva,” when applied to the entire university, is a misnomer. Those who fail to recognize this are understandably disturbed to find doctors being produced by the school they had always thought of as primarily a training ground for Orthodox rabbis and Hebrew teachers. “Where,” they ask, “does Yeshiva come to a medical school?”
More significant and numerous are the people who fully comprehend Yeshiva’s development and are unhappy about it. In their view, the secular branches have grown at a pace and in a fashion which threatens to obscure if not suffocate their spiritual trunk. The Catholic universities, these critics say, do not permit their religious identity to be obscured in any of their secular divisions. Even in naming its medical school, Yeshiva turned not to Maimonides or some other well-known rabbi-physician, but chose instead the name of a man who, while a genius, had no regard for the traditional practices of Judaism.
I was repeatedly told during the course of my researches into Einstein College, “We don’t need a non-Jewish school sponsored by Jews.” One man to whom I talked pulled from his desk a clipping of an editorial which had appeared in the Brandeis University undergraduate newspaper. This, he said, may one day be the kind of thing that will appear in a Yeshiva newspaper. Entitled “Self-Respect,” the editorial attacked the scheduling of classes on the second and eighth days of Succoth, and pleaded: “Here, if nowhere else on the academic scene, the Jewish student should not be made to feel an outsider, forced to conform to the demands of the Christian world.”
Such anxieties are not totally groundless, especially where the College of Medicine is concerned. Since Einstein is part of a university dedicated to operating within the spirit and letter of Jewish law, it is neither surprising nor a sign of petty carping that eyebrows have been raised at the fact that Medical School buildings are open on Saturdays. No formal classes are held, no equipment can be obtained, but the Science building is open. Students can, and do, work in the anatomy labs, in histology or pathology, or simply study. Staff members engaged in research also use the facilities on Saturdays. According to Jewish law concerning violations of the Sabbath, if a man can otherwise secure what he desires, there is no obligation to deny it to him. This prescription surely applies to staff members, who could use other facilities on Saturday or could shift to institutions that would allow them to work on Saturday. Students, however, are in a different category. Other facilities are not readily available to them, they cannot easily switch schools. Because use of the Science building on the Sabbath cannot be effectively restricted to faculty and non-Jewish students, Yeshiva’s position as a bulwark of Orthodoxy is being compromised.
The problem exists, too, in the case of hospital coverage. Orthodox students may arrange to be off on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, but non-observant Jewish students are in the hospitals at these times. An observant physician who teaches at another medical school told me, for instance, that certain rounds made on Saturday in the hospitals under Einstein’s supervision could just as well be made on Sunday, eliminating unnecessary Sabbath violations. Einstein does not seem to concern itself with these matters, again compromising Yeshiva’s position.
Frequently cited as an example of how the medical school violates the Torah is its willingness to accept students of priestly descent, kohanim. Leviticus, 21: 1-4 states: “And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people; except for his kin, that is near unto him, for his mother, for his father, and for his son, and for his daughter, and for his brother; and for his sister a virgin, that is near unto him, that hath no husband, for her may he defile himself. He shall not defile himself, being a chief among his people, to profane himself.”
Prior to the 17th century, when anatomy was not part of the medical school curriculum, this prohibition against contact with the dead did not prevent kohanim from entering the field of medicine. Kohanim who were rabbi-physicians attended Ferdinand III, Alphonso the Wise, an Algerian Sultan, a Pope, and other notables. By the 18th century, as the number of schools requiring the study of anatomy expanded, the number of kohanim in medicine began to decline. In his valuable book, Jewish Medical Ethics, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits reasons that this “can only be explained as reflecting the growing misgivings with which the choice of medical career by students of priestly descent was generally viewed.” At the very least, it reflects the growing confusion caused by the rabbinic literature which began to appear on this question. (The Shulchan Aruch itself does not discuss the special situation of the kohen and medicine.) One school of thought maintained that kohanim might perform anatomical dissections while studying medicine, arguing that the laws of defilement did not apply to priests in post-Exilic times and, moreover, that the accuracy of lineage was in doubt. A second, larger, school roundly rejected this view, though conceding that the kohen who violates the ban as a student was merely an “unwitting sinner.” A third school permitted kohanim to study medicine only if they avoided coming into contact with the dead.
Most recently, an observant young American of priestly descent wrote the late Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog of Israel asking whether it was permissible for him to enter medical school. Rabbi Herzog replied that the young man could study medicine anywhere in the world, providing he then came to Israel to practice.3
Clearly, the issue has never been settled beyond dispute, and Yeshiva’s policy that each kohen who wants to take up medicine must determine his own course certainly does not indicate a blatant disregard for the Torah.
The performance of autopsies is another cause of controversy. Municipal law, which governs Einstein’s hospitals, requires autopsies which seem to involve a conflict with Jewish law. Autopsies are also part of training in anatomy and here too some people feel that a violation of Jewish law is entailed.
Does Judaism prohibit autopsy? It unquestionably prohibits any desecration of the dead, but is anatomical dissection such a desecration? In Talmudic times, the issue of performing autopsies for medical reasons seems never to have arisen, though there are several Talmudic references to anatomical investigations (e.g., the study of foetal development to clarify laws of ritual cleanliness, Berachot 4a). More importantly, there is no record of rabbinical objection to the practice before the 18th century, which marked the beginning of Jewish debate on autopsy by Talmudic authorities.
In 1737 Rabbi Jacob Emden, replying to a query from a medical student at the University of Goettingen, declared that it was forbidden to derive benefit from human corpses. Sometime afterward, what is perhaps the most widely cited decision on the subject was delivered by Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague. Answering a question from London rabbinical authorities, he declared that autopsies constituted an indignity to the dead which was unquestionably prohibited by Jewish law. But, he went on, where such an investigation might result in the immediate saving of a life it was permissible.
Landau’s opinion was apparently based on a discussion in the Talmud (Tractate Chullin 11b) concerning a murder: might an autopsy be performed to secure evidence that would benefit the accused? The sages said no, because the evidence uncovered would in all likelihood not be sufficiently conclusive to free the defendant—thus implying that autopsy would be permissible if it resulted in the saving of a condemned man.
This conclusion, however, did not settle the matter, and the debate carried on into the 19th century. The famous respondent Rabbi Moses Schreiber agreed with Emden that one was not allowed to benefit from the dead and with Landau that autopsies could only be permitted where there was an immediate prospect of saving a life, but he thought that the prohibition might not apply to non-Jews whose own teachings sanctioned post-mortem examinations. (This has given rise to the belief that Jews may perform anatomical experiments on non-Jewish bodies only. Actually, while some leading authorities do maintain this position, other equally impressive authorities do not.)
Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger of Germany rejected dissection even for the immediate saving of a life—unless the deceased had bequeathed his body for that purpose. Rabbi Moses Schick of Hungary disagreed with both Schreiber and Ettlinger, declaring that a person might not issue an order in his lifetime dispensing with the dignity due his body; nevertheless, he said, just as all laws are suspended to save a life, an autopsy is permissible where a life hangs in the balance.
In this century the debate has sharpened still further. Such outstanding authorities as the late Rabbi Benzion Uziel, a Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, have approved the dissection of Jewish bodies so long as proper respect and burial are observed. Opponents of this sanction, whose ranks include many respected modern scholars, refuse to go beyond the Landau decision.
A climax came with the founding of the State of Israel. After long deliberation, the Chief Rabbinate ruled that autopsies might be performed when three designated physicians certified that the cause of death could not otherwise be determined, when it was conclusively shown that the lives of existing patients could be saved, and when hereditary diseases were involved.
As for anatomical studies in medical schools, Rabbi Herzog declared: “The Plenary Council of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel . . . do not object to the use of bodies of persons who gave their consent in writing of their own free will during their lifetime for anatomical dissections as required for medical studies, provided the dissected parts are carefully preserved so as to be eventually buried with due respect according to Jewish law.”
It would be wrong to assume that the debate is ended; things are not that simple among Jews. But the currently predominant Orthodox attitude toward anatomical studies was excellently stated by Rabbi Jakobovits in a very detailed article on the historic and Halachic background of autopsy in the Fall 1958 issue of Tradition:
It seems clear that some of mankind’s worst scourges, such as cancer and coronary thrombosis, will not be conquered without the most painstaking studies on thousands of victims from these dreaded diseases. Modern communications have made the world shrink into a single parish, so that we may consider the revelations of an autopsy in America to be potentially of immediate benefit to a sufferer in Asia. It must also be accepted that a certain experimentation in anatomy is indispensable in the training of competent doctors.
Rabbi Jakobovits hastens to add “that the number and extent of autopsies must be limited to an irreducible minimum; that a sense of reverence must be preserved during and after the operation; and that all the remains must be buried as soon as possible with due respect.” He also urges the adoption by Jewish hospitals of a suggestion by Dr. A. H. Merzbach of Israel that “a council of three religious doctors at every hospital determine the necessity of post-mortem examinations.” Where this is not practicable, he suggests that “hospital chaplains or visiting rabbis might be appointed to sanction and supervise all autopsies in compliance with Jewish law.”
Since its hospitals belong to the city, Einstein would face serious difficulties if it attempted to enforce these conditions. But even in the light of Rabbi Jakobovits’ suggestions, the conduct of anatomy classes at the school itself is far from being the violation of Jewish law that it is popularly believed to be.
Still, in seeking information about Einstein, one is struck by the repetition of stories which go far toward accounting for its image within the Jewish community. One of them concerns a visit to the college by a group from the New York Board of Rabbis, representing Judaism’s three denominations. A highlight of the visit was a meeting with some of the college’s most important faculty members, headed by the dean, Dr. Marcus D. Kogel. The rabbis were eager to hear how various Halachic problems were being handled. It soon became apparent that the doctors to whom they were talking had no knowledge in this area, even though they were responsible for administering the school’s program. Frustrated, one rabbi asked what distinguished Einstein from other medical schools. Dr. Kogel launched into a description of its unique design, advanced equipment. A second rabbi, who happened to be Conservative, cut him off to clarify the question: “When we walk into a Catholic medical school, we are immediately aware that we are in a Catholic institution. What is there about Yeshiva University’s medical school that makes it immediately distinguishable as a Jewish institution?” To which Dr. Kogel proudly responded: “Nothing.”
This response typifies the attitude of Einstein’s dean toward the college.
“I was brought here,” Dr. Kogel told me, “to supervise the construction of a medical school that every Jew would be proud of. My job now is to help make it one of the best in the country.” He recounted the problems of moving from drawing board to reality, of attracting a high-caliber staff, of winning the philanthropic community’s approval, and of running a medical school generally. And a brisk tour of the school and hospitals with Dr. Kogel revealed that he is not a desk-chair administrator. He knows intimately the buildings, the equipment, the students. The hospitals were planned under his guidance while he was New York City Commissioner of Hospitals, a post he held from 1949 until coming to Einstein in 1953. When the talk turned to the problems of running an Orthodox-sponsored medical school, Dr. Kogel backed away: “I don’t know about those things. Maybe I’m sorry that I didn’t pay a little more attention to them when I was younger, but it’s too late now. You’ll have to talk to the president of the university.”
Confronted with the story about the New York Board of Rabbis delegation and asked if this didn’t create a bad impression, Dr. Kogel answered that he could not remember the incident. But, he continued, a prominent Orthodox Jew once called to ask him how Einstein determines whether applicants are of priestly descent, “I told him we give them special pills, fluoroscope them, and take x-rays.”
Was this wise public relations? “I simply have no patience with these people,” he declared. “I have a job to do and it is difficult enough without that stuff. Maybe the man who follows me will be able to do things differently.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Kogel apparently feels that it is vital to dispel the notion that there is anything essentially Jewish about Yeshiva’s College of Medicine. He sees no irony in the remark he made to a New York Post reporter interviewing him for the paper’s “Daily Closeup” column: “In fact, Yeshiva’s president asked us please not to discriminate against any students wearing skullcaps.” Never does he mention that in deference to the president he voluntarily adopted kashruth in his home. His public refrain seems to be: we were born of an Orthodox institution, but the cord has been cut and we are free.
Echoes of this refrain can be heard from the faculty, though it would be unfair to leave the impression that everyone teaching at Einstein is dedicated to eradicating the signs of the school’s origins. Some faculty members are unconcerned; others are curious to learn about Judaism’s attitude toward medicine. The majority are strange to Orthodox ways.
To get a sharper picture of faculty feeling, I spoke to Dr. Irving M. London, chairman of the Department of Medicine, who is highly regarded in medical circles and also has the reputation (unjustified, according to the students themselves) of being rough on Orthodox students.
“Of course,” said Dr. London when I asked him about some of the rumors, “everyone’s religion should be respected. But the important thing is that Einstein is providing its students with a luxurious medical education. It has attracted some of the finest scientific minds available, people who have come to work in freedom. Any article that does not concentrate on the research being done cannot possibly present the real story of the school.”
Quite plainly, Dr. London is deeply concerned that the scientific and philanthropic communities should not get the impression that free inquiry is being stymied by theology at Einstein. The rest of the faculty, it is safe to assume, shares this concern. That Judaism demands the exertion of every resource for the preservation of human life is not enough to allay the fears of the skeptical mind with its stereotyped image of the endless struggle between science and theology.
But the simple truth—although it takes on enormous, often bewildering complications in practice—is that “for the Jew, the greatest way to worship God is to render service to man.” This, at any rate, is the view of Dr. Samuel Belkin, president of Yeshiva University. We met one evening in Stern College, for dinner and a long talk afterward. As we sat waiting to be served, Dr. Belkin surveyed the tables filled with gay, bubbling young women and said almost to himself, “We are overcrowded here.” Then he recalled that in 1948 there was opposition to Yeshiva’s opening a girls’ high school, and six years later the same people opposed Stern College.
Dr. Belkin also remembers that when he first heard of Yeshiva some sections of the Jewish community were predicting its doom: “Shortly after I arrived in this country I joined the Agudath Ha-rabonim [the oldest association of Orthodox rabbis]. At the time, Dr. Revel was starting the college and there was a lot of excitement among the rabbis. The idea of a theological seminary opening a secular institution was severely criticized. The college, it was predicted, would mark the end of the rabbinical school.”
That was in 1929, when Samuel Belkin, only seventeen but already ordained at the Radin Yeshiva in his native Poland, arrived in the United States. His eagerness for secular knowledge led him to Harvard and Brown universities, where he majored in Greek, receiving his Ph.D. from Brown in 1935. That year he also became an instructor in Greek at Yeshiva College; the next year he was appointed an instructor in Talmud at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. By 1940, he was professor of Hellenistic Literature in the newly organized Graduate School and dean of the Seminary. In 1943, as the Jewish community wondered who Yeshiva’s second president would be and said to itself that he must be a man of superior Talmudic and secular scholarship, Samuel Belkin was named to the post. He was thirty-one years old.
Why did Yeshiva open a medical school when, say, a law school would seem more natural? Dr. Belkin answered this question first by dismissing the strangeness of the union: “Judaism is concerned with the totality of man, as is medicine.” Then he enunciated what, in effect, is his basic philosophy: “We can no longer shut ourselves off in closed communities; the ghetto is not suited to our times. People want to be in the mainstream of society; if you try to restrict them you can’t preserve much. It is vitally important that we achieve cultural integration while maintaining religious separation. And in preserving his traditions, the Jew must also contribute significantly to his country’s welfare.”
Dr. Belkin feels keenly that striking the delicate balance between integration and assimilation is a key to the survival of Judaism. Intimates suggest that he is motivated in part by what he has learned from his studies of Hellenism. Listening to him, one is reminded, too, of the Prophet Jeremiah’s advice to the exiled Israelites: “Seek the welfare of the city wherein ye dwell, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in its welfare shall be your peace.”
To demonstrate Dr. Belkin’s philosophy dramatically, Yeshiva decided to enter the field of medicine. The president met with an official at the Rockefeller Institute, who outlined the work and cost involved in opening a medical school and the hospital it would need to function. The operating costs of the hospital were staggering. The Rockefeller man counseled, however, that Yeshiva form a Medical Advisory Committee.
Shortly afterward, a committee of fifty leading physicians and medical administrators met for dinner with Dr. Belkin. One of them asked what the religious requirements would be at the proposed school. Dr. Belkin said that only two demands would be made: all food served in the school would have to be kosher, and no classes could be held on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. Several non-Jewish doctors noted approvingly that these would in no way hinder the development of a first-rate medical school. (In telling this story, Dr. Belkin adds that had the non-Jews present not been the first to speak up, some of their Jewish colleagues undoubtedly would have protested that the demands were intolerable.)
A small working committee was formed from the fifty-man gathering, but the hospital question remained. This was solved unexpectedly one day when Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons called Dr. Belkin for an appointment. He arrived with a Bronx delegation which reported that a large municipal hospital was planned for the Westchester Heights section. They had heard that Yeshiva wanted to open a medical school and were wondering whether it would become the hospital’s teaching and research arm. Yeshiva seized the opportunity.
It is naive to suppose, as many do, that Dr. Belkin is unaware of the problems of running a modern medical school within the spirt of Jewish tradition. At the same time, it is not surprising that such an impression exists. For there seems to have been little or no discussion, let alone settlement, of these problems while Einstein was in the development stage. Dr. Belkin’s guiding principle was apparently to avoid engaging in theoretical deliberations which could conceivably be interpreted as repressive sectarianism, and to deal with Halachic problems only as they arose in practice.
Selecting the medical school’s name, Dr. Belkin explained, involved two important considerations: “We wanted to make it clear that this school is not a yeshiva, that it is a scientific institution. For the medical school is not an outgrowth of the Yeshiva, it is part of a larger plan for the expansion of the university. We also wanted it to bear a name which signified the highest scientific achievement. Our vision was to build a college of medicine which would rank among the best.”
Albert Einstein’s name not only satisfied these requirements but, said Dr. Belkin, “his love for Yeshiva was great.” In fact, Einstein’s devotion at times perplexed the president. Thus, the two were touring the medical school when Einstein stopped to ask a young man wearing a skullcap if he would remain an observant Jew now that he was studying medicine. The student responded affirmatively and Einstein said to him, “To change now would be immoral.”
Why doesn’t Yeshiva demand certain minimum religious observances, e.g., wearing a skullcap, at the College of Medicine and at its other secular graduate divisions?
“Once young men or young women have completed college,” Dr. Belkin replied, “they have made their decision about religion. The molding period is over. On the undergraduate level, in high school, and college, the molding process is at a critical stage. There we are interested in the yeshiva-type student; we require strict adherence to traditional Judaism and will not countenance any violation of that tradition. On the graduate level, our objective is twofold: to provide the Orthodox student with professional schools where he can maintain his religion to the maximum, and to contribute to the general welfare of the nation.”
Catholic medical schools require students of all religions in attendance to take a course in Catholic dogma relating to medicine; wouldn’t a course in Jewish law and medicine, perhaps as an elective, be appropriate at Einstein?
To this Dr. Belkin replied simply, “We are not Catholics. What applies in Catholicism does not apply in Judaism. We do not separate the body from the soul.” As for a course in Jewish law relating to medicine, he felt that the medical curriculum already was so crowded that it left no room for additions. Nor would he force such an orientation on the faculty. If, however, enough of them requested this instruction, that would be another matter.
What about the complaint, especially from rabbinical students, that Yeshiva’s secular branches are flourishing at the expense of the Theological Seminary?
“The best answer to that is a look at the rabbinical school,” Dr. Belkin said. “We are producing more and better trained rabbis today than ever before.” He observed, too, that it was not unusual for one division of a university to complain that another is being favored, but that actually the growth of each benefited all.
The evening ended with Dr. Belkin recalling the following incident: “Recently, I was approached by a Yeshiva graduate who is now a doctor. He expressed dismay at what he had heard about Einstein. ‘Where were you on Yom Kippur,’ I asked him, ‘when you were going to medical school?’ ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I didn’t do any work, of course, but I had to attend classes.’ ‘The Orthodox students at Einstein,’ I told him, ‘were in synagogue. For the first time, Orthodox young men and women can study medicine in this country without having to compromise their religious beliefs.’”
And the thirty-odd Orthodox students to whom I spoke agreed that for them this was the most important feature of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Little else brought total agreement, since “orthodoxy” is not a characteristic of the so-called Orthodox. The students fell into three general groups: the smallest of the three felt that things were fine at the school; everyone was free to act as he pleased, and nothing should be done to create an air of sectarianism. A second small group disagreed, insisting that Jewish philosophy and values should be emphasized, and that a “Torah-true” spirit should not only dominate the institution but proudly radiate from it. The largest group endorsed the principle of a free atmosphere and was undisturbed by the paradox of sometimes having to employ devious means to exercise its religious beliefs in what might be called its own house, but was fearful lest Yeshiva put itself into a position where the firmness of the institution’s convictions might be doubted.
The greatest difficulties, both actual and psychological, were experienced by the Orthodox students in Einstein’s first and second classes. Products of yeshiva elementary schools, and in most cases of Yeshiva University’s own high school and college, they nevertheless were uneasy upon entering Yeshiva’s medical school. This, many said candidly, was the result of suddenly finding themselves with non-observant as well as non-Jewish students, and with a faculty which was ignorant of, if not unsympathetic to, their ways. In addition, they were not quite sure of what they were permitted or forbidden to do in a medical school situation, and there was no one in authority at Einstein to whom they could turn with real or imagined religious problems.
Acceptance came easily once fellow students and faculty members grew to know them. To cope with religious problems, many sought the aid of a teacher at Yeshiva who is equally at home in the laboratory or with Halachah, and the problems were slowly solved at the administrative level. Recently, too, a delegation of Orthodox students met with Dr. Belkin and then with Dr. Kogel to explore current troubles. Informal instruction in Jewish law affecting medicine is also now given to pre-medical students at Yeshiva. But a majority of the students I spoke to urged that someone of unchallengeable scientific training and Jewish scholarship be put in authority at the medical school itself to rule on religious questions.
Interestingly, when I met with a large group of Orthodox students one night in a lounge at Einstein, they expressed exasperation at some of the rumors I asked them to verify. Several of them noted disapprovingly, though, that while it was considered necessary to have the hospitals covered by non-observant and non-Jewish students on the High Holy Days, Christmas was exempt from coverage. Similarly, they did not think it proper for students to work in the school on Saturday, but insisted that their own refusal to do such work did not put them at a disadvantage.
A question about admission interviews prompted some to insist that they had detected real hostility; others said that their interviewers were genuinely intrigued by Yeshiva’s curriculum and explicitly expressed admiration at the amount of time devoted to studying Jewish law and ethics. One student volunteered that there were undoubtedly antagonisms at interviews and in the classroom, but these were gradually working themselves out; occasionally, he said, Orthodox students displayed questionable attitudes or were oversensitive.
My suggestion that perhaps Yeshiva should never have opened a medical school was unanimously rejected. “You must understand.” a student remonstrated, “that the advantages are tremendous here.” There followed a host of testimonials:
Whatever its drawbacks, Einstein is the only place where we can attend medical school in full spiritual comfort.
We always feel at home; the school has a definite Jewish atmosphere.
Services are held three times a day in the new dormitory chapel. Before the chapel opened, almost every afternoon better than a minyan of men gathered in an empty laboratory to daven Minchah.
“The impression Einstein is making outside the Jewish world also is important,” broke in a heavy-set boy. “Not long ago, over at the hospital, I was assigned to stay with an elderly man who was very ill. I was with him day and night for forty-eight hours until he died. His son was there too. Toward the end, he told me: ‘I’m not the same religion as you are. But I see how you took care of my father like you would take care of your own father. I’m changing my ideas about your people.’ To express his appreciation, he gave me a sandwich that he had run down to get for me. It was ham and cheese, but I just said thank you.”
The most accurate diagnosis of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I think, was made by a sober, bespectacled young doctor who is one of its fifty alumni: “The Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community, is not really ready for a modern medical school; it isn’t prepared to meet the inevitable problems squarely and positively. And the faculty has not really adjusted yet to the idea of working in a Jewish medical school; it still doesn’t fully understand what this means. Both have to mature, and Einstein’s existence should accelerate this maturity. It’s only a matter of time.”
1 I am deeply indebted to Dr. Moses D. Tendler, a young Talmudic scholar and microbiologist, for studying with me from original sources much of the Jewish law that relates to medicine; and to Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland who now occupies the pulpit of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, for making available to me his doctoral thesis on Jewish medical law.
2 Approximately 1500 young men and women—the vast majority of them Jewish—apply for the school's 96 openings every year. About 90 per cent of the total student body thus far has been Jewish.
3 Naturally, general principles cannot be drawn from a halachic responsum given to an individual, where many special circumstances may exist.