By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Pitting science and supposedly rational thought against religion and what is deemed by some to be primitive superstition sets up a wholly specious straw man. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz correctly contends that “Self-proclaimed sanity is not more convincing than self-proclaimed righteousness. Both mean very little, and fail to create in others a desire for an intelligent discussion.” In a purely Hegelian context, the very attempt to synthesize these seemingly irreconcilable extreme positions may actually lead to the realization that reason and faith are equally essential elements of the human condition.
Sometime during the 1920’s or 1930’s, one of the daughters of the Gerer Rebbe, the head of the largest Hasidic movement in pre-Holocaust Poland, was suffering from a severe eye disease. Father and daughter traveled to Warsaw to consult a pre-eminent Warsaw ophthalmologist who told them that potentially hazardous surgery was required. The concerned parent did not know whether they should follow this recommendation. Countless of his followers had come to him for guidance over the years in similar circumstances, and he had always tried to give them spiritual support, had encouraged them to put their faith in God. Now he hesitated. Maybe he recalled that another Hasidic master, the Gastininer Rebbe, once told a disciple who had asked him to heal his sick wife, “Were I able to accomplish cures, I would have visited the sick of my own accord and effected their healing. All I am able to do is pray for the sick person; you can and should do the same.”
After a lengthy discussion, the Gerer Rebbe asked the ophthalmologist what he would do if the patient were his daughter. As my father told it, the doctor, who happened to be an assimilated, totally secular Jew, gently replied, “I would go to the Gerer Rebbe and seek his advice.”
I was reminded of this story while reading Breakthrough, Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle, the recently published book by Arthur Ainsberg and Thea Cooper about the transformation of diabetes from a death sentence to an eminently treatable disease. In April 1919, the daughter of Charles Evans Hughes, a former Governor of New York, former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and former Republican presidential candidate, was diagnosed with juvenile Diabetes Mellitus, with a prognosis that she was likely to die in short order. Within three and a half years, her life was saved by Dr. Frederick Grant Banting, a Canadian physician and scientist who, together with Dr. John James Richard Macleod, had discovered insulin. In 1923, Banting and Macleod, who hated each other with a passion, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Breakthrough examines how these disparate individuals made medical history with the help of, among others, the director of biochemical research at the Indianapolis pharmaceutical drug manufacturing firm, Eli Lilly and Company.
Hughes was the son of a Methodist clergyman; Macleod’s father was a reverend with the Free Church of Scotland; and according to Ainsberg and Cooper, Banting’s parents had “hoped he would pursue the ministry.” However, it does not appear that any of the book’s protagonists ever turned to God or their church during the many crises with which they were confronted.
One explanation suggested by Ainsberg is that at a time when high infant mortality was the norm, religion hovered in the background as a source of solace in response to tragedy but did not otherwise impact the scientific search for cures to deadly diseases.
Another possibility is that we simply do not understand the essential nature of divinity. Perhaps true faith, an inner conviction that the seemingly impossible might occur, actually permeates the pages of Breakthrough, albeit wordlessly.
The human mind is an enigma that all too frequently defies logic. Beethoven’s music is either a fluke or God’s gift to humankind. The same is true of Monet’s paintings, Spinoza’s attempt to discern philosophical truths, and the haunting poetry written by Jewish children in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin. Why should we not view the discoverers of insulin in precisely the same light?
“In 1975, at the age of 28,” Ainsberg told me, “I was stricken with a disease that had been, for thousands of years, incurable: Hodgkin’s Disease. At the time of this diagnosis, doctors at Stanford University Medical Center had developed a mode of treatment, involving both chemotherapy and radiotherapy, that was curing Hodgkin’s Disease patients. I was lucky enough to be one of the fortunate patients who was cured. The parallels between Elizabeth’s and my paths from sickness to health are remarkable.”
Many of us have heard about the devout man who refused to leave his home despite torrential flood warnings. As the water level begins to rise, a paramedic knocks on his door and tells him to get into a waiting fire truck. The man refuses to leave, saying simply, “No, my faith will save me.” When the water rises still further, and the man has been forced to go up to his second-floor bedroom, a rowboat appears near his window and a voice calls him to get in. “No, my faith will save me,” the man says again. Finally, he is forced to seek refuge on the roof of his house. As the water surges around him, a helicopter hovers over him, and he is told to climb up to safety on a rope ladder. “No, my faith will save me,” he says one last time before drowning. Arriving in heaven, he angrily confronts God and demands to know why, given his life-long piety and observance of all religious commandments, he was not rescued. God’s response: “Who do you think sent you a fire truck, a row boat, and a helicopter?”
I would like to think that the Gerer Rebbe reached the conclusion that he had been sent to the secular ophthalmologist by God, just as Arthur Ainsberg has to be in awe, in the spiritual sense of that term, of the Stanford University researchers and doctors who cured his lymphoma. Breakthrough allows us to contemplate the divine mystery of human genius. For this alone, its authors have earned our gratitude.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, and Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law. He is the immediate past President of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.