When I awoke at 6:00 a.m. to attend shacharit (the first prayer service of the day), I had no idea that later that day I would be consulted as a theologian at a Christian institution. When I got to the synagogue, I was greeted by elated parishioners who needed a tenth congregant to complete their quorum and asked me to preside over the reading of the Torah.
The trip from the synagogue to Georgetown University School of Medicine took only twenty minutes, but ideologically I might as well have been traveling to the antipodes. I had visited several secular medical schools and had come away feeling alienated. I hoped that as a religious medical school, albeit not one affiliated with my religion, Georgetown would be different.
When I arrived, I was guided to the sparsely decorated admissions holding pen with students from schools like Duke, Harvard, and Princeton. They seemed blithely unconcerned with or outright indifferent to the religious character of Georgetown. They found themselves with a rabbinical student from Yeshiva University who did care about it.
After the customary admissions presentations focusing on topics like finance and student life, Donna Sullivan strode in. No taller than 5 foot 2, and no younger than sixty-five, she distributed pamphlets about Georgetown with our names on them, warmly commenting on each of our applications as she did so.
She began to talk about the mission statement and philosophy of the medical school we would choose to attend. Since we would be entrusting our education and our future to the school, we needed to wholeheartedly endorse its philosophy. We would be unhappy, if not completely miserable, with the result of our education if we were not devoted to our school’s mission statement. If Georgetown’s mission was not for you, that was fine; enjoy the remainder of the day and attend another medical school.
As a Jesuit institution, she said, Georgetown is committed to the ideal of cura personalis, the healing of the entire person, mind, body, and soul. Presumably for my benefit, she graciously translated the term into the language of the Jewish vision of tikkun olam. Invoking the biblical concept of covenant, she assured us that cura personalis would help us develop a covenant with our patients.
Turning to me, she asked for a rabbinical exposition on the notion of covenant, leaving me feeling as if my role that day was that of theologian-in-chief; ironic, of course, in a Jesuit institution. The problem for me was that the idea of tikkun olam has become so hackneyed an idea, filled with the eisegetical meaning from well-intentioned political activists, that it has become meaningless. More important, I thought, tikkun olam certainly did not convey the same vision as cura personalis. As a visitor, I just smiled.
Sullivan assured us that Georgetown’s idea of cura personalis would in no way impinge on our medical education or career. It would only broaden our understanding of the way in which medicine was practiced. Of course, as a Catholic institution, Georgetown-affiliated hospitals do not perform abortions. Yet we were assured that if we wanted to learn to conduct such procedures or do stem-cell research, we could do so at another local institution.
I felt rather confused about the full meaning of cura personalis. I would have expected that such practices would be completely unacceptable for a Catholic medical school under any circumstances.
Yet cura personalis does guide the curriculum of the medical school in other ways. Students are taught to take spiritual histories and are free to refrain from engaging in any activity if they object to it on religious grounds. I was pleased to learn that the philosophy of cura personalis extended to the bedside as well. We were told to see the long hours that physicians and medical students invest in the service of science and patients as an expression of this venerable tradition of healing. Aside from some of the discrepancies between the philosophy and the practice, cura personalis truly transforms the training of the medical student and helps to create an especially caring and humanistic physician who knows the connection between mind, body, and soul.
I left the discussion excited about the open dialogue on religion and on the core philosophy of Georgetown. We broke for lunch. Unfortunately, the kosher food must have gotten lost. My lunch consisted of a soda, which I slowly sipped in silence while the other applicants ate the ham sandwiches provided by the school.
During lunch, a member of the medical school faculty stopped in to tell us about his career. At one point, he paused and began to talk about the religious nature of the medical school. A self-described Christian, he expressed disappointment that the “religious Georgetown” run by the Jesuits was in reality “falling off the left end of Christianity.”
There was little reaction from the uninterested and now vigorously chewing audience. I, however, was surprised. Given the zeal and passion with which Sullivan had presented and openly extolled the school’s religious heritage and philosophy, I wondered how anyone could believe the school irreligious. For a group that was “falling off the left end of Christianity,” the medical school appeared quite devout. I was called out for my interview and left.
After lunch, we were taken on a tour of the affiliated hospital, right next door to the medical school. I did not find any particularly Christian features about the hospital other than the iconography, which seemed to be around almost every corner and in every room. I had expected to see scenes out of The Sound of Music, with nuns in full garb walking from services and openly praying with and ministering to the ill around every corner. Nevertheless, I left the institution with the deep impression that the school, in its own unique way, was deeply committed to its religious tradition.
Some weeks later, I visited Einstein, the medical school of Yeshiva University, my home institution. Although faculty and staff had told me before my interview that Einstein was “a medical school run with the heart of a Jewish mother,” I did not notice anything particularly Jewish about it other than the plentiful kosher food and, evoking the Christian iconography at Georgetown, the mezuzot on various doorposts and the students walking about in kippot.
Although I was happy to enjoy a full lunch, no one mentioned Jewish theology, Judaism, or Jewish practices during any part of the day. Indeed, even during my interview and the student-led tour, the topic of Judaism did not come up at all. The interview might well have been conducted at Duke, Harvard, or Princeton. This left me saddened.
Admittedly, Einstein has been officially open to faculty and students from any religion or creed since its beginning. But Georgetown’s mission statement also pledged to educate a diverse student body and that has not prevented the school from teaching from its tradition. Was Einstein’s founding decision the right one? Was not something important lost in not being more consciously Jewish in the way Georgetown declares itself the “heir to the long and rich Catholic and Jesuit tradition of caring for the sick,” as it says on its website?
In an attempt to grapple with these questions, I researched the founding of Einstein and probed the writings of Yeshiva University’s spiritual godfather, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In his letters of the period (collected in Community, Covenant, and Commitment), Soloveitchik insisted that the school conform to Jewish law in all aspects of diet, religious holidays, and daily observance. Einstein largely complies with this expectation.
Just as important, he expected Einstein to counter the “agnostic attitude and irreligious approach of physicians.” Deeply concerned with a profoundly scientistic culture of modern medicine and with its resulting deep disregard for religious values, both dehumanizing of the patient, he felt that the modern physician’s response to the sick was often driven by a “superficial, mechanical, and positivistic approach to human life.”
Soloveitchik believed that a pious Jew could not possibly be the caring physician he ought to be unless he maintained his observance and embraced the central values of the Jewish worldview. Only a fully observant and theologically Orthodox medical school would train and nurture truly religious and traditional physicians whose medical practice expresses the humanistic values of the tradition.
The tribal affiliations at Einstein are still alive and well. I spent the twenty-minute drive from Einstein back to my house feeling as if I had just left the home of a relative.
As I reflected upon my experiences, I realized that Rabbi Soloveitchik offered something to both medical schools. Einstein could, even as a non-sectarian institution, learn from the Jesuits of Georgetown about the insights into healing and care that religion uniquely provides. Georgetown could learn from the example of Einstein about living in conformity with the requirements of its religion. Both would be better medical schools for it.
Peter Kahn is a rabbinical student at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.