Creaturely Sovereignty

Today I came upon the Oath of Maimonides. Here is the short text written by the preeminent rabbi, physician, and philosopher of the medieval period:

The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.

May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.

Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.

Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.

First, there is the recognition of being entrusted with a noble and weighty responsibility. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, “The act of healing is the highest form of imitatio Dei.”

Next, Maimonides has the humility to admit the temptations that go along with success and excellence.

On this, Heschel also has something to say: “Striving for personal success is a legitimate and wholesome ingredient of the person. The danger begins when personal success becomes a way of thinking, the supreme standard of all values.”

To be very concrete about this, Heschel even suggests combatting “the virus of commercialism” by making “a personal decision to establish a maximum level of income.”

In Maimonides’ oath, we also see a strong emphasis on the physician’s responsibility to remain dedicated to lifelong learning, formation, correction, and improvement.

Again, my mind turns to the 20th-century parallels in Heschel’s thought: “The doctor’s [philosophical and religious] commitments are as much as part of it [the diagnosis and treatment of a patient] as scientific knowledge and skill.”

Such an approach includes the humble recognition that, as my friend put it the other day, “Even the physician needs a healer.”

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