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The Human Genome Project:
Reopening the Book of Healing
By Yisrael Rutman
Over two millenia ago, the Jewish King Chizkiyahu, made an historic, yet puzzling, decision. He decreed that the Book of Healing, with its vast store of medical knowledge, should be locked away. The people were denied access to it, and it has remained that way ever since. Why did he do this?
Within the next few days, the slate of human knowledge will be wiped clean and a new text will begin to be written.This will happen when scientists at the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics Corporation make their formal announcements that they have succeeded in cataloging the "3 billion bits of genetic code that tell the human body how to live and when to die."
It will take years to develop the practical applications, but the benefits promised, especially in the field of medical science, are vast. Scientists anticipate that they will be able to use gene-based tests to predict disease, and there will be new medicines that utilize genetic data for disease prevention and treatment with little or no side effects. Without doubt, we stand on the threshhold of great discoveries.
What The Ancients Knew
In contrast, it was over two millenia ago that the Jewish King Chizkiyahu made an historic, yet puzzling, decision. He decreed that the Book of Healing, a vast compendium of medical knowledge, should be locked away. The people were denied access to it, and it has remained that way ever since. Why did he do this?
Before we can attempt to answer this question, however, there is something basic we must first understand about the civilization of the distant past. There is a tendency in modern times to dismiss the peoples of antiquity as primitives because they lacked our modern science and technology. Granted, the ancient kings of Israel did not have the supercomputer-powered biogenetic techniques today available to the scientific community. Nor do we have a comprehensive record of their method of treatment. Nevertheless, we should not make the mistake of underestimating what they knew.
The astronomy of the Talmudic Sages, for example, rivaled even that of contemporary science. As Rabbi Hillel Goldberg wrote recently about the intercalation of the Jewish calendar:
To figure out exactly how often a leap month needs to be added to the lunar calendar, and exactly how many solar days it needs to be, a prerequisite is an accurate calculation of the lunar month.
According to calcualtions derived from satellites orbiting the earth, the lunar month is exactly 29.530588 days long. When the Jewish calendar originated in antiquity...before satellites, before telescopes, before virtually anything but the naked eye, the Jewish sages...calculated the lunar month at 29.53059 solar days...The difference is 00.00002=two one-millionths of a day.
In the field of engineering, too, ancient Israel demonstrated unaccountable skill. In the middle of the Western Wall, that famous remnant of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a huge stone, weighing 370 tons. The most powerful crane in the world today cannot lift more than 250 tons; and yet, that Temple stone was somehow lifted into a position in the wall well above street level. Construction engineers in our time marvel at this engineering feat, and can only speculate that perhaps some ingenious system of pulleys was employed to maneuver this massive building block into place.
To dismiss the Book of Healing, then, as a compilation of primitive home remedies, would be an arrogant and false assumption. If what the ancients knew about astronomy and engineering---and how they knew it---is enough to confound contemporary science, the medical secrets that King Chizkiyahu hid away may have been no less astounding, and no less beneficial to mankind. The question must be asked then: Why did he do so?
The True Cause of Suffering
The commentators on the Talmud explain that prior to Chizkiyahu's time, a Jew suffering from illness would turn for healing to the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people---the Prophets. The Book of Prophets contains only a handful of written prophecies (those that were deemed relevant for all future generations); but there were in fact many more prophets in the generations from the time of Moses until the early Second Temple era. Using their extraordinary insight into the depths of man's spirit, they were able to read the "patient's" spiritual record and tell him or her what really was ailing them; not just the symptoms, but the underlying spiritual cause. It was understood that a disharmony in one's relationship with G-d or Man could bring about a corresponding physical disorder. We understand today that the symptom of a disease is not itself the disease, and that there is an underlying physiological disorder; they understood more deeply, that the underlying physiological disorder is also only a symptom.
By King Chizkiyahu's time, however, this understanding had become obscured. People were relying more and more on special remedies, treatments of the physical causes, and neglecting the root of their problems. So it was deemed necessary to put away the Book of Healing.
How is it, then, that for centuries religious Jews have engaged in medical treatment? Not only that, but many of the greatest Torah scholars themselves practiced medicine, and were honored for it. Maimonides (d.1204), a great halachic authority and himself physician to the royal court of Alexandria, wrote that a sick person who seeks medical treatment should no more be condemned for it than a starving person who seeks food. And just as the one who eats blesses the Creator for the kindness of providing the life-giving nutrients, so too should the person who is healed by a doctor bless the Creator for providing him with the means to alleviate his suffering.
Rabbi Eliahyu Dessler (1893-1953) explains that there were always individuals, even in the time of the prophets, who relied on medical treatments, such as may have been found in the Book of Healing. As it would be for us, it was difficult for them to trust in a method of healing they could not see or put their finger on. They needed a more concrete approach. But in an era of prophetic guidance, it was virtually a breach of faith to go to a doctor. For if one could discover the underlying sin or transgression and work to correct it, the use of a medicine, however effective, would be like trying to circumvent the will of God, who desires the healing of repentence, not of pills. So, for the people of his generation King Chizkiyah forbade the Book of Healing.
What It Means To Us
For those who could not live that way---and today we are all like that---conventional medicine is certainly permitted. The story of King Chizkiyahu is recorded in the Talmud, however, because it does still bear relevance to us. The underlying cause of disease remains neither physiological, nor genetic; it is due to a deeper disharmony. Without the aid of the Prophet, though, we are unequipped to pinpoint precisely what has gone wrong within us. So we have to go to the doctor.
This does not release us from the obligation to search our souls when something goes wrong in our bodies. We have to ask ourselves if we are meeting our obligations to God and Man. Are we are praying as we should? Are we learning Torah as we should? Giving charity and loving our neighbor as we should? Or are we spending money on needless luxuries? Are we gossipping about others and bearing grudges?
This also explains the Torah view that one who visits the sick has not completed the mitzvah until he also prays and asks God to heal the person. For of what good is the physician's care and the friend's moral support without the care and support of the Almighty?
Obviously, these are not the considerations of the leading health care advocates in the 21st century. If all the ethical and social spinoff problems---such as a future genetic divide between those who can and cannot afford the cost of genetic treatment---would be solved, no one would have any qualms about the envisioned medical benefits. What could be wrong with turning the genetic key in the lock of human illness? Why not use this newfound knowledge to rid the world of untold suffering? Why not reopen the Book of Healing?
King Chizkiyahu and the Sages saw things differently. Their scale of values was profoundly different from ours. To them, even the greatest material benefit must be weighed against spiritual loss. We, too, must realize that, even as we avail ourselves of the latest technological advances, that ultimately the cure for suffering is not in our hands. We can reopen the Book of Healing and use the genetic code for the benefit of mankind---as long as we do not forget who authored the Book in the first place.
Yisroel Rutman teaches in Ohr Yaakov Rabbinical School, Zichron Yaakov, Israel. He is also editor of www.e-geress.org.
from the July 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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