Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shiur Theatre: Maimonides and Galen, Act One

You might recall last year's Occupy Wall Street script and Jew vs. Jew script. This year, Shiur TheatreTM is back!

On Friday night, we presented "Maimonides and Galen Face Off" as part of a Friday night dinner for our "Athens and Jerusalem" shabbaton. The goal was to use a creative approach to explore the medicine and personalities of the Rambam and of Galen, and to learn some of the Rambam's Torah along the way. Here is Act One; I hope to post all three acts, as well as the source sheet we distributed:

Thank you for being here to watch our presentation; the play should run about twenty minutes. You might wish to consult our source sheets along the way, to aid in following the dialogue.

Dr. Claudius Galen, our "Greek" physician, actually lived after the Greek Empire fell to the Roman empire – but he is still considered the greatest of the ancient Greek physicians, perhaps because he credited the Greek Hippocrates for much of his medicine. He lived in the 2nd century of the Common Era, and practiced medicine first in treating Roman gladiators, then in clinical medicine and as a royal physician. He wrote nearly 300 books, and his lessons formed the bedrock of medical practice until modern times. He was also a bit of a character, as we will see.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides lived one thousand years after Galen, and is considered the greatest Jewish physician. He practiced medicine clinically as well as for the family of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and additional Arab lands, and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. Aside from Maimonides' accomplishments in Judaism, he wrote ten medical books, and inspired centuries of Jews to enter medical practice.

By the magic of Hollywood and in flagrant violation of the laws of space and time, Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital has imported these two great physicians to interview for the position of Chair of Medicine in their Research Centre. Due to budget cuts, though, the two men will be interviewed simultaneously – by Board President and hospital staff member Elyssa Goldschmiedt.


President Goldschmiedt walks in with Maimonides and Galen. She motions Maimonides and Galen to sit behind one desk, and she sits behind another desk which might have some standard desk odds-and-ends on it to make the scene more "real". Maimonides and Galen eye each other with visible dislike.

PRESIDENT: Thank you very much for coming in, gentlemen; I trust your trip was uneventful?

MAIMONIDES (scowling): It would have been uneventful if not for this fellow turning Gladiator on airport security.

GALEN (offended): They confiscated our theriac!

MAIMONIDES: I was in the middle of calmly explaining to the uniformed gentleman that it was innocuously medicinal, using a polite, quiet tone geared to settle wrath,[1] when the Greek drew a dagger.

G: Which they had the nerve to confiscate as well!

M (sigh): It’s a wonder they let us on the plane in the end.

P: I see. Well, I'm sorry for the inconvenience. Would either of you like a drink?

M: Wine, please. Diluted, three parts water to one part wine.

P: Umm… how about coffee?

M: Very well - but only with a great deal of sugar. One should endeavor to partake of sweet foods, for the sweet is what nourishes.[2]

G (a sharp look): You stole that from us.

M (calmly): I give proper attribution, always.

P (buzzes phone): Please send in coffee, thank you. With many sugar packets.

P (turning to Galen): Let's start with our senior candidate, then, Dr. Galen. (reading off a resume) I understand you come from Pergamum, which would be in Western Turkey today. You were born in 129, and started medical school there?

G: That is correct. We initiated studies in medicine, as well as philosophy and the natural sciences, in Pergamum, before pursuing studies in Smyrna and Corinth, and finally in great Alexandria. All told, we spent twelve years in our studies.

P: I see; what made you decide to pursue a career in medicine?

G: Not a career, a calling, to serve mankind. But we embarked upon this path after the god of healing, Asclepius [Maimonides coughs "Avodah Zarah"; Galen is irritated] appeared to our father, Nicon, and ordered him to have us study his arts.

P: I see. [makes a note on a sheet, saying "religiously motivated" under her breath as she writes]

G: And Asclepius rewarded us – years later, when we were grievously ill, Asclepius guided us through an arteriotomy [Maimonides coughs "idolatry"; Galen is more visibly irritated] that saved our life.

P: Most interesting. And then I see you went into sports medicine?

G: Yes, for four years we treated wounded gladiators. It was a wonderful opportunity to study human anatomy, you know, as well as to network. You would be surprised at how much the lions left us to work with. Not that we pursued the opportunity – the chief priests demanded our services.

M (unable to control himself, he spits out the word): Barbarians.

G: Nonsense. One must have a strong body and mind. We have been careful to recommend against abusive training regimens and fad diets, and we have stood firm against the wrestling schools which produce men lame and wrinkled and eyes askance.

M: You think to prescribe a proper balance of strong, rapid and violent exercise and by this avoid responsibility for all of the negative effects of this practice, the dulling of the warriors' brains[3] and the bloodlust of the mob?! Certainly, one should not study at all times, avoiding all exercise,[4] and exercise can even improve one's frame of mind,[5] but you glory in the development of the body at the expense of the development of the mind.

G: Our civilized positions on these were known from our many texts on the subject, including our best-selling, "Exercise with the Small Ball".

M: Barbarians.

P (clears her throat): I believe you left for Rome after that?

G: Yes, Rome – a deadly city. Overcrowded, poor sewage and drainage, public water supply, public baths, malaria-ridden mosquitoes and frequent plagues of tuberculosis and smallpox. Every element of infrastructure the Empire provided for its smallest, least significant outpost, was denied Rome.

P: I believe you served the royal family of Marcus Aurelius there?

G: Yes (hands over rolled up piece of paper); here is their letter of reference.

P: Thank you. But you fled the city four years later?

G: Yes, due to one of their many unfortunate plagues. We then served with the army, but Asclepius (Maimonides: coughs "idolatry") forbade us from travelling with them to the front, so we returned home.

M: How convenient.

G (turns to Maimonides, indignant): Excuse us! And what is with this coughing? Did you not write an entire treatise On Asthma?

M (smiling): My apologies; "we" seem to have an idol stuck in our throat.

Galen scowls, half-rises

G: We learned more than just anatomy from those gladiators, you know!

P (trying to assert control of the meeting): Dr. Galen - I know you list your major influences as Hippocrates and Aristotle; I see that your opinion of other predecessors was less respectful. What would you view as your own legacy?

G (incredulous): Our legacy? Must we really answer that? Nearly 300 books, adoption by the Muslims and the Christians, the foundation of all Western medicine until the 16th century, that isn't enough of a legacy? (points to Maimonides) Why, everything this student of Moses said came from us!

Maimonides grins calmly.

P: I see. I did have one other question: It seems that you had some issues in cooperation with your colleagues?

G: Colleagues? These pretenders knew nothing.

P: I believe you said of your rival anatomists, Erasistratus and Aesclepiades, "Like slaves caught in the act of stealing... one says nothing, and the other indulges in shameless lying."…?

G: Correct.

P: And in one of your books you wrote, "We have written of these things because of the inane loquacity of recent physicians."

G: Correct again. These gentlemen were so obstinate in their foolishness; one might more easily teach novelties to (looks at Maimonides) Jews and Christians (Maimonides shakes his head in disapproval) than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools.

P: I… see. (scribbles notes on sheet, then turns to Maimonides). And let us turn now to Dr. Maimonides. I believe you also studied in Egypt?

M: I was born in Cordoba in 1135, and had to flee the Almohads at the age of 13. I came to Fez, where I began to study medicine, then travelled to the Holy Land before settling in Fustat, in Egypt as you call it, in 1167.

G: How few were the years you invested in medical education, which ought to have been the foundation of your practice! And that while sandwiched around your Judaics?

P: Thank you for your point, Dr. Galen, but this is my interview. Dr. Maimonides: What made you go into medicine?

M: (addresses Galen) Gd did not appear to my father. (turns back to the President) Rather, Gd spoke to my ancestors collectively and commanded them to heal.[6]

P: Was that the entire motivation for this career change? I believe you were a rabbinic scholar first.

M: Correct, but one must fill his belly with the meat and bread of Torah before he can turn to study nature.[7]

P: So your plan all along was to study medicine?

M: Well, not exactly. My brother – peace be upon him – supported my studies, but when he unfortunately died in a shipwreck in 1169 I became a practicing physician.

P: So this was a step away from your rabbinic life?

M: Certainly not! I completed my commentary to mishnah before this, but afterward I wrote my Book of Mitzvot and my work of law, Mishneh Torah, as well as my Guide of the Perplexed. And, at the same time, I served in the nagid leadership role for the Egyptian Jewish community.

G (sarcastic): Great dedication to the medical field, indeed.

P (explicitly ignoring Galen): Most impressive, Dr. Maimonides! And in 1185 you were invited to become physician for the sultan Saladin's chief advisor, and then for Saladin's own family?

M: That is correct, and here is my letter of reference. (hands over rolled up piece of paper; Galen mocks "my letter of reference") And my influences were rather broad, including Aristotle, Hippocrates and, yes, Galen, as well as the Arabic Avicenna, Albucassis and Averroes, and even elements of Chinese medicine.

P: And your relationship with your colleagues?

M: Unlike my esteemed predecessor, I take my lesson from Pirkei Avot and try to be accepted by all[8] – but I will not deny that when it came to writing the truth I minced no words, even if that meant offending ten thousand people for the sake of conveying the truth to just one.[9]

P: I see; yes, I heard about the book-burnings. So what would you consider your medical legacy?

M: Many generations of Jews who have embraced the study of general science, and particularly medicine. Not to mention, the ten medical works I published.

G: Ten – hah!

M: I was not in the practice of recording every syllable I uttered and publishing it, claiming that my words had been requested in print by the masses.

G: Nor were you in the habit of saying anything original.

M: I would pursue accuracy over originality. And as far as your legacy, I don't see too many "Galen Medical Centres" and "Galen Hospitals" out there. Try looking it up on Googlos.

(Assistant enters with coffee; President sighs with relief and excuses herself to see to a phone call. She beckons the two men to join her offstage.)

[1] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deiot 2:5
[2] Medical Aphorisms 20:64
[3] Medical Aphorisms 18:9
[4] Ibid. 17:4
[5] Ibid. 18:2
[6] Commentary to Mishnah Nedarim 4:4
[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 4:13
[8] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deios 5:7
[9] Introduction to Moreh haNevuchim


  1. Wow. Brilliant!

    I see you're going with the version taught in yeshivas, that Rambam sat and learned until his brother drowned. But this has been questioned for various reasons; most notably Rambam writing that "my brother drowned holding money of his, mine, and others", implying that Rambam had some sort of salary (perhaps as a partner of his brother's, or his brother managed his investments).

    Do you find the traditional account more convincing?

  2. Thanks!

    I didn't think I took a stand on it in this script; to my mind, even if the Rambam did actually invest with his brother's work, his brother was the one doing the labour.

  3. His brother was definitely doing the riskier, longer-hours work. ("He allowed me to dwell securely"); my impression is that Rambam was still putting in a few hours at the office (shuk, whatever).

    It's a lot like the poetic waxing at the end of Shmitah v'Yovel -- "If a person is on the right spiritual level, G-d will provide for them" -- couldn't that be in the form of an easy job?

  4. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)December 2, 2012 at 10:29 AM

    Informative and entertaining! Looking forward to the rest of it... hopefully I won't have to search "Googlos" to find it ;-)

  5. The "greatest Jewish physician"? I thought that was the son/daughter/grandchild of whoever is speaking...

  6. Daniel Saunders,

    No; it's whoever the Jewish institution wants as their banquet honoree this year. :)