זבחים כה, ב
אמר ליה תרדא...
R. Chiya bar Abba said to R. Zeira: "Scatterbrain"
As a medical student in London, humiliation came with the territory. There I was, on rounds on General Surgery Firm. At its head, the consultant surgeon. Followed (in their correct pecking order) by two senior registrars, three or four registrars, several senior house officers and house officers, nurses, physiotherapists, and a couple of medical students. We gathered around the bed of some poor patient who had recently undergone surgery. The consultant surgeon turned to me: "Mr. Brown" he said, looking at me atop of his professorial reading glasses, "how long is the anal canal?" Everyone else smiled, relieved to know they had not been asked this, rather challenging question. I had no idea, despite having once known this useful fact to pass my anatomy exams. "Thirty centimeters, sir" I replied, hopefully. "Correct," said the surgeon, as he surveyed the menagerie of staff trailing him. "If you are an elephant." And so ended my surgical career.
Teaching By Humiliation in the Talmud
The insult hurled by R. Chiya bar Abba said to R. Zeira in today's Daf Yomi תרדא – is variously translated as "lunatic" (Schottenstein) "imbecile" (Koren) and "fool"(Soncino). The rabbis of the Talmud were not shy to call out those they felt were slow-witted or annoying. After Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was asked a relatively innocent question by Levi, the great editor of the Mishnah replied כמדומה לי שאין לו מוח בקדקדו - "it appears to me that Levi has no brains in his head," an insult he repeated on at least one other occasion. Rabbi Tarfon had enough of Rabbi Elazar when he told him "How long will you pile up meaningless words and bring them against us." He even used the same insult against Rabbi Akivah. Rabbi Akivah! (See ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת בהעלותך רמז תשכה.) Rabbi Yishmael was called "a date palm" (and not in a good way) by Rabbi Eliezer (see ספרא תזריע פרשה ה).
The rabbis of the Talmud did not just insult individuals. The were not averse to humiliating swaths of Jewry. Big swaths. After hearing a teaching that came from Babylonia, Rav Yirmiyah, who lived in Israel, couldn't control himself: "Stupid Babylonians; because they live in the dark, they state teachings that are dim."
One of my favorites though, came from Rabbi Dosa, who called his younger brother "the first-born of Satan" which raised name calling among siblings to a whole new level. I could go on, but you get the point. These guys could be really insulting.
Pimping in the Medical Literature
For the reader who is not medically trained, here's a new word: pimping. It's a real word that is OK to use in polite company (maybe). According to the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association, pimping is
a series of difficult and often intentionally unanswerable questions posed to a medical student or house staff in quick succession. The objective of pimping is to teach, motivate, and involve the learner in clinical rounds while maintaining a dominant hierarchy and cultivating humility by ridding the learner of egotism.
There is an art to pimping, according to Fredrick Brancati, the man generally thought to have invented the term in its medical content. Here is an excerpt from his classic 1989 paper, called, what else, The Art of Pimping:
Pimp questions should come in rapid succession and should be essentially unanswerable. They may be grouped into five categories:
1. Arcane points of history.These facts are not taught in medical school and are irrelevant to patient care—perfect for pimping. For example, who performed the first lumbar puncture? Or, how was syphilis named?
2. Teleology and metaphysics.These questions lie outside the realm of conventional scientific inquiry and have traditionally been addressed only by medieval philosophers and the editors of the National Enquirer. For instance, why are some organs paired?
3. Exceedingly broad questions. For example, what role do prostaglandins play in homeostasis? Or, what is the differential diagnosis of a fever of unknown origin? Even if the intern begins making good points, after 4 or 5 minutes he can be cut off and criticized for missing points he was about to mention. These questions are ideally posed in the final minutes of rounds while the team is charging down a noisy stairwell.
4. Eponyms. These questions are favored by many old-timers who have assiduously avoided learning any new developments in medicine since the germ theory. For instance, where does one find the semilunar space of Traube?
5. Technical points of laboratory research. Even when general medical practice has become a dim and distant memory, the attending physician-investigator still knows the details of his research inside and out. For instance, how active are leukocyte-activated killer cells with or without interleukin 2 against sarcoma in the mouse model? Or, what base sequence does the restriction endonuclease EcoRI recognize?
Last year an Australian team published a paper titled "Teaching by humiliation” and mistreatment of medical students in clinical rotations. They found that 74% had experienced and 83% had witnessed teaching by humiliation during their adult clinical rotations; smaller proportions had experienced (29%) or witnessed (45%) it during their pediatric rotations, which just proves what everyone already knows. Pediatricians are all nice.
All this pimping comes with a down side. "Students’ responses to these practices" wrote the Australian researchers, "ranged from disgust and regret about entering the medical profession to endorsement of teachers’ public exposure of a student’s poor knowledge. Reported victims and perpetrators included junior medical staff, who were subjected to the practices as much as students and were equally likely to be the perpetrators, alongside senior medical and nursing staff."
Talmudic Insults and Respect for the talmid
In today's page of Talmud, R. Chiya bar Abba called R. Zeira a "scatterbrain." Rabba called R. Amram the same thing back in Bava Kamma (105b.) In fact he called him a scatterbrain again in Bava Metziah, so he must really have meant it. This epithet seems to have been the "moron" of its day. Even the great Abayye must have felt a little miffed when he was called a scatterbrain by Rava bar Hannan.
It seems demeaning to use language like this, and out of place given the words of the Mishnah (Avot 2:10) יהי כבוד חבירך חביב עליך כשלך - "let your friend's honor be as important to you as your own." Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (Germany, 1638-1732) addressed talmudic insults in his book of responsa called Chavvot Yair, first published in 1699. Apparently things were getting out of hand in Germany, where the talmudic art of humiliating had evolved. Yeshivah students now also yelled and gesticulated rather enthusiastically as they sparred with their learning partners:
מש"כ קפיצה וסיפוק וריקוד תוך הפלפול איש נגד רעהו שזה גורם בלי ספק שחבירו ימהר לעשות כמעשהו וירקוד ג"כ כנגדו וירים קולו בצעקה גדולה ומרה יותר ולא ישמע איש שפת חבירו ואין זה רק מנהג יהוא וכל המרבה בה ה"ז משוגע
Students jump and dance around each other in the middle of expounding a subject, and this will cause, without doubt, that other students will do the same and will leap and raise their voices in a louder and more bitter cry. No one will be able to listen to the voice of his partner. This is nothing other than a ridiculous custom, and anyone who does this often is a mesgugah...
Rabbi Bachrach then rose to the defense of those who used talmudic insults, claiming that they did so with only good intentions. They did it, he said, in order to bring out the very best they could in those they insulted. (כלם י"ל שהיו חבריהם וגודלים מהם ולא קפדי כלל). Hmmm. I'm not convinced.
Insults don't work, not for medial students and not for any students. Ad hominem attacks are now, alas, the currency of many public or political (especially political) debates, though they usually say more about the person uttering them than the person against whom they are directed. It seems that the rabbis of the Talmud were just as susceptible as the rest of us to this all-too-common failing. We can all do better.
[Mostly a repost from here.]