On Celebrating Yom Kippur and the Birth of Modern Opera… and Moses Maimonides

“Monday Musings” for Monday October 10, 2016
Volume V. No. 41/301

220px-Mary_Douglas_(1921–2007)

YOM KIPPUR, LEVITICUS, AND MOSES MAIMONIDES OF CORDOBA

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA, ScD (Hon)*

Syzygy of events, while joyful, brings conflict. In two short weeks we have had Rosh Hashanah to which October 3 “MM” was devoted. The birth of western opera was on Thursday October 6 (see below), and Yom Kippur will begin at sundown on October 11, 2016. Today, we celebrate both. To observe and commemorate Yom Kippur (Yom means day and Kippur means great–the great day) which is focused on prayer, fasting, atonement and redemption, we reprint the work of the late Dame Mary Douglas, the famed British anthropologist and Rosner’s biography of Moses Maimonides of Cordoba.

  1. A brief history of the western Opera:

Western opera was born as the result of collaborative studies of 17 scholars, the Florentine Camerata, who met every Wednesday evening for seventeen years, to study and discuss the impact of music on words. They poured over, with scholarly exactness, the ancient Greek texts and Greek operas. Among this distinguished group of artist-scholars was a wool trader, violinist virtuoso and sometimes composer, Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer Galileo. As an aside, like many fathers, Vincenzo wanted for his son to become a physician, but to no avail. The son pursued mathematics and astronomy.

The group, under the leadership of Garibaldi Mei, a Medici, developed the concept of “word music”, later called “opera”. The first composition, or opera, was Orpheo and Eurydice by Jacobo Peri. It was performed at 8:00 PM. October 6, 1600, in Piti Palace , Florence. Seven years later, in 1607, Monteverdi composed the same opera, and for the first time he gave us the concept of the aria illustrating the impact of music on words.

  1. Celebrating Yom Kippur by reviewing the books by the late Mary Douglas and Rosner/Kottec:

Leviticus as Literature By Mary Douglas Oxford Press 251 pages; 29 pages of reference and index, total 280 pages

I have always had a weakness for older women. First it was my mother with all the Oedipus schmedipus. Then, it was Mother Simon, a French nun, at the French Jesuit School in Tehran. Mother Simon was a toughie. She would assign you to memorize 400 lines of a French epic poet like Victor Hugo, in two days. On reciting, the slightest flaw would bring the ruler out of her long sleeve. She was to teach us Les Literatures Francaise de dix-huitieme siecle (18th century French literature) but she began the year with Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), then crisscrossing all époques and periods, to teach Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755), Voltaire (1694-1778), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1754), Alphonse Chateaubriand (1877-1951), Alfonse de La Martin (1884-1947), right up to Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Emil Zola (1840-1904), Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Note that some of those writers were still alive in the 1940’s when I was going to that school, but just the same, they all came in purview of Mother Simon’s course of 18th century literature!

I have already alluded to my blatant love affair with Antonia Fraser in my review of her book, The Warrior Queen, Wake County Physician magazine, several years ago. There have been many other secret loves and dalliances, but I don’t want to turn this into a confessional.

My current hot love affair is with the late Mary Douglas, the brilliant octogenarian (born on March 25, 1921, died May 16, 2007) who is ruling my life and making me read her day and night at the expense of other neglected authors whose books are piled high on my desk. Now that she has passed, I continue my love for, and admiration of, her brilliance and incredible contribution to the body of the English literature.

Mary’s Book, Leviticus as Literature is seductive. It teases the recesses of the reader’s brain by dangling huge servings of delicious Aramaic sayings, etymologies and words that I have not seen since I was a boy. She knows how to seduce. She knows how to make sense out of a miserable and dry piece of writing that synagogues hate to teach, because children quit going to Sunday school during the teaching of Leviticus. She takes the gory subject of animal sacrifice, entrails, intestines, body parts, smearing of blood on the altar, etc., and like a diva ballerina, pirouettes the subject into a brilliant scholarly discourse. She explains that Hebrew and Aramaic words for parts of the anatomy often have diverse meanings. The word for head can mean summit of a mountain, leader, chief, as well as head of a body. Similarly, feet, (regel), is a common biblical euphemism for human sexual organs. She explains that in Jacob’s blessing on Judah’s progeny, “the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor shall the ruler’s staff from between his feet….” Or her take on the famous passage in Leviticus that requires a person should love his neighbour as himself (Lev 19: 18, 34). We know it to be the cornerstone of Christian faith. She quotes another Aramaic scholar, Abraham Malamat, suggesting that in this commandment, love means to be charitable and helpful to neighbours, to take care of them, to develop a particular warm feeling for them. Thus “Love the stranger” means more like “Cherish the stranger.”

Mary Douglas’ sheer intellectual force has turned reading Leviticus, the driest of biblical books, into a page turner mystery novel. The reader wonders, at every turn, what a word means, and what and how it was used to convey what kind of message. Leviticus is a book that taken at face value gives elaborate instructions for the sacrificial cult. However, Douglas takes these boring and inconsequential rules and proposes the exciting view that these cultic procedures reflect a sophisticated system of thought. She proposes that the writers of Leviticus, through these elaborate commandments, are really explaining the structure of the cosmos as they understood it, a place where vertical division of Mount Sinai is mirrored horizontally in the sanctuary (the inner court of Levi). Reading the very complicated, obscure and sometimes repulsive book that deals with blood, sacrifice and body parts has been made delightful by the genius and insight of Mary Douglas. Leviticus as Literature expands one’s vision of self, the cosmos and the universe. Mary Douglas’s intellect is a gift to mankind, and her book is a gift to the literary world.

maimonides

BOOK Review

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA

Moses Maimonides
Edited by Fred Rosner, MD and Samuel S. Kottek, MD
229 pages of text, 41 pages of reference notes and 10 pages of index
Jason Aronson, INC., Publisher

There is a sweet anecdote at the beginning of Sherwin Nuland’s biography of Moses Maimonides which has to do with Jewish mothers insisting their sons to become doctors, the “My Son, the Doctor” paradigm.

It goes something like this: “Imprisoned in a tower in Madrid, disabled by syphilis and further weakened by abscess in his scalp, The French King Francis asked of his captor, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to send the finest Jewish physician to attempt a cure.” Frances discovered that the doctor sent to him was not Jewish but a baptized Christian. Irate, Francis dismissed the doctor and insisted to be treated by a genuine Jew. That physician may have been Moses Maimonides, brought all the way from Cordoba.

Not only was Moses Maimonides of Cordoba a good Jewish doctor, he was a rabbi, a philosopher and prolific writer. During his life time he wrote 5.3 million words, most of which have been preserved. He wrote on all aspects of medicine, infectious disease, nutrition, spirituality and internal medicine. But he also made inroad into the world of psychiatry.

You would think that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an effective method of treating a wide range of psychiatric problems, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder and many other neuroses, including phobia and panic disorder, is thought to be one of the contributions of the twentieth century medicine, until you read about the life and work of the polymath, “super-genius” physician, theologian, philosopher and astronomer, Rabbi Moses Maimonides of Cordoba (MM of C) .

The Rabbi, a major author of Helakhic authorities, the collective corpus of Jewish religious, rabbinical, and later, Talmudic laws wrote about CBT way back in 1170. Fred Rosner, a respected hematologist and medical ethicist, a professor of medicine at Mount Saini School of Medicine in NY, and his colleague Samuel Kotteck, professor of the history of medicine at the Hebrew University-Haddasah Medical School, Jerusalem, have collected papers and articles by no fewer than 20 scholars offering this remarkable edited volume. It is a slender and compact 229 pages chock full of historical jewels. In essence it is a a biography of Dr. Maimonides, along with a description of his writings and work.

Fred Rosner’s erudite discussion in this well researched and meticulously referenced book shows the reader that Moses Maimonides, in his famous trilogy The Commentary on Mishnah (means ‘repetition’), is the major source of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishneh Torah, and the Guide for the Perplexed traces much of what we know today about effective nutrition, methods of practicing CBT and biofeedback, guided imagery and self-awareness, a discipline he learned from the work of the Persian physician, Abu Ali Sina, Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1130) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

In a chapter that asymptotically approaches brilliance and virtuosity, Gad Fruendenthal explains how Maimonides, a citizen of the medieval age of superstition and primitive thinking, opposed astrology, radically. He was quick to give credit for his enlightened thinking to Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet and astronomer, born 1085, died 1123, only eight years before the birth of Maimonides. So for all practical purposes, Avicenna, Khayyam and Maimonides were contemporaries. Although Omar Khayyam is known for his poetry and The Rubayats, he was a scientist and an avid astronomer to whose work Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) has made numerous references. Like Aristotle, Maimonides insisted on scientific objective and not speculative findings. In his book, the Guide , a collection of his personal letters referring to practice of medicine, he wrote: “Medicine is not knitting and weaving and the labour of the hands, but it must be inspired with soul and be filled with understanding…”

Reading Moses Maimonides of Cordoba make us fall in love with our holy profession all over again, and take refuge from the oppression and intrusions of the government and bureaucrats.

*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He received 2016 NC Award for Fine Arts.
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