In the literature of the Haskalah, the early-modern Jewish Enlightenment movement, the Jewish doctor was a stock heroic character. His presence persisted into the 20th-century Yiddish literature that I study, where the most idealized doctors were intellectuals with a common touch, broad-minded humanists whose ready empathy was channeled into liberal political and social engagement.
They all owe a debt to Maimonides, the paragon of Jewish doctors—a thinker who scaled the heights of esoteric philosophy but also considered it worthwhile to instruct his readers on how to avoid the evils of constipation. But the transition he makes in his legal code from behavioral to digestive wellness isn’t haphazard; it pivots on the observation that without a sound body, one cannot properly contemplate the Divine. Who can study philosophy with a toothache?
I’ve been thinking about this integrative type of medical practitioner a lot over the past week as I’ve followed—with dismay turning to indignation—the stalled nomination of Dr. Vivek H. Murthy to the post of Surgeon General. Just 36, he is a Harvard Medical School instructor, has helped found a healthcare advocacy organization, and launched a science research startup. But he isn’t yet a public servant because of a campaign by the National Rifle Association to prevent his appointment thanks to his position, asserted in the wake of the Newtown shooting, that gun violence is a public-health issue.
The Indian-American nominee is not a Jewish doctor, so why should a scholar of Jewish literature associate him so freely with Maimonides or an I.J. Singer hero? Well, the mind goes to what it knows. In addition to my acquaintance with Maimonides and my expertise in Yiddish fiction, I am also something of an expert on the longitudinal development of Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, and H.S.-BFF—because we met as high school sophomores in chemistry class.
I can say with a high degree of confidence that at the center of Vivek’s life is the vital task of drawing connections between issues, people, and experiences that seem, at first blush, to be disparate. Our most recent Thanksgiving together reminded me of his talent for gathering a circle of friends whose most striking commonality is their readiness to labor on behalf of altruistic ideals. Spirituality, nutrition, salsa dance, healthcare affordability, yoga, humanistic education, patient-doctor communication, business ethics and, yes, gun violence: I know from many conversations over the years how these and other topics weave together, root and branch, in Vivek’s fertile mind.
I would probably feel some annoyance at any obstacle being thrown in the path of my deserving friend. But in this instance, there can be nothing short of utter moral recoil: A smart and deeply caring doctor is being pilloried for discerning and speaking to the true relations between things—public health and gun violence—that can only be prised apart through perverse bias. This is a pernicious example of how an arbitrary political litmus test threatens to exclude an extraordinary and amply qualified nominee.
I like to think that Maimonides would look upon Vivek’s work and smile; as for me, I’ve eaten only what the medieval sage prescribed, and yet I read the week’s news and my stomach aches.
Miriam Udel is assistant professor of Jewish Studies and German Studies at Emory University and a member of the Miami Palmetto Senior High School class of 1994.