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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”




Rabbi Lelia Gal Berner, Ph.D.

Department of Religion

Emory University

Atlanta, Georgia

With its origins in the Hebrew Scriptures, the notion of "moral etiology" may be defined as the belief that physical affliction and disease (such as AIDS) is straightforward divine punishment for sinful behavior, and that sinners do not merit the care of the larger, more morally righteous community. A prime example of the biblical link between sin and physical affliction may be seen in Numbers, chapter 12 in which Miriam challenges Moses' exclusive leadership of the Israelite people. "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also? . . . " For this extraordinary challenge to her brother's authority, Miriam is punished by God: "When the cloud went away from over the tent. Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. . . "

In Jewish tradition, Miriam's "sin" was to assume that she could prophecy along with her divinely-selected brother. Her punishment was leprosy. In post-biblical, rabbinic Judaism, the word metsora (trartalated as leprosy) has even been interpreted as an acronym for " motzi rah to emit evril, suggesting that a leprous person or someone afflicted with a severe skin disease is literally "oozing evil" through his/her physical affliction. In contemporary terms, moral etiology is essentially "blaming the victim" for his/her illness . This blaming is, in my view, the real "dis-ease" in our culture: predicated on the erroneous assumption that somehow ill people are greater sinners than the rest of us, it prevents humane, decent caring for the ill to take place, it isolates those most in need of community, it secludes those most in need of inclusion, it pushes away those most in need of embracing.

Until very recently, the world Jewish community has been slow to respond to the AIDS epidemic. This slowness of response is due to a confluence of factors, not insignificant among them Judaism's adherence to the idea of moral etiology. Along with the ancient belief that physical illness is a consequence of immorality, the Jewish community has indulged in intense denial that AIDS is a "Jewish" issue. Popular Jewish belief has been that are few Jewish homosexuals, even fewer promiscuous Jews, even fewer Jewish substance abusers, and virtually no Jewish women whose behavior would put them at risk for AIDS.

As Andy Rose points out, "AIDS brings together some of the most difficult issues of our culture: sexuality, drug abuse, illness, disability and death."l This confluence of moral judgment, taboo and stigmatization has caused the Jewish community to collectively turn its attention away from the challenge of AIDS.

Contemporary Jewish theology has come to challenge the basic assumption of moral etiology. Indeed, in Reconstructionism (the denomination to which I belong), the idea that God is the direct purveyor of punishment for sin has been significantly questioned. Rather than being viewed as a supernatural Force working upon a passive creation in an

1Andy Rose, "'They'are Us: Responding to the Challenge of AIDS,* in Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian. Gay and Jewish. Christie Balka and Andy Rose, eds., p. 236.

old-style system of reward and punishment, God is seen as the Creator of Nature who then functions through Nature, rather than outside it, within natural processes (including illness) rather than above these processes.

The implications of such a "trans-natural" theology are that while God may have created the natural world, in all its infinite complexity, even the Holy One cannot always control that world. Thus, the notion of moral etiology falls away: human beings are not afflicted with disease because God wills it as punishment for sin. Rather, people become ill because the forces of Nature, in their own mysteriously and perhaps random way, take their own course. Thus, illness and disease become neutral realities, no longer laden with moral significance. This approach is summarized well in Rabbi Harold Kushner's well-known book, When Bad Things Hapgen to Good People:

Could it be that God does not cause the bad things that happen to us? Could it be that He doesn't decide which families shall give birth to a handicapped child ... but rather that He stand ready to help... us cope with our tragedies if we could only get beyond the feelings of guilt and anger that separate us from Him? Could it be that "How could God to do this me?" is really the wrong question for us to ask? (2)

In this approach, then, moral etiology becomes irrelevant. What is much more pertinent is that God is viewed as the ill person's companion, present to assist the afflicted as he/she struggles with illness. In this theology, God is not the Great Judge or Castigator, but rather the Friend, the Comforting One, the One to whom an ill person might turn for solace and embrace.


In such a Jewish theological approach, there is a logical next step - and this involves the community of the Jewish faithful. If indeed, as Genesis teaches us, each human being is made in God's Image and likeness, -and each human being is, in some sense, a reflection of the Divine, how much more so should an entire community reflect divinity in our communal actions? Thus, if God is Friend, Comforting One, giver of solace and embrace, how much more so the Jewish community emulate God's way in its approach to the ill, to people with AIDS?

From this way of thinking, an approach to people with AIDS emerges that rejects the notion of moral etiology, and promotes a far more constant and solid notion in Judaism - that Jewish behavior must reflect not only the divine spark that resides in each human being, but must also be guided by Jewish values, taught by Judaism's sages to the people over millennia. Following is a brief summary of some of the Jewish values that should, in my view, guide the religious Jewish community's response to the AIDS epidemic:

A.Values based on the notion of imitatio Dei

1 . Tzelem Elohim: A central teaching of Judaism (derived from Genesis 1:2627) is that each and every individual is made in the image of God as is therefore to be approached (as we approach God) with dignity and respect Thus, people with AIDS should be treated with sensitivity, and honor, as should all humans. The stigmatization. to which people with AIDS have been subjected must cease, and they should be welcomed and embraced by the Jewish community.

2 Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People p. 30.


2. Bikur cholim: visiting the sick As Francine Klagsbrun points out "the model for visiting sick people is God, whom the Book of Genesis tells us, visited Abraham when the patriarch was recuperating from his circumcision. To visit a person who is ill became a religious obligation, and in every Jewish community, down to our own day, special societies have been formed to visit poor or lonely patents who may not have other to depend on." Until recently, Jewish "bikur cholim" societies had not extended their services to people with AIDS, but increasingly the Jewish AIDS community is becoming included in this communal service. As Jewish values increasingly come to guide our communities, the umbrella of care has been expanded to include people with AIDS. -

3. Gemilut chasadim: deeds of loving- kindness: As with bikur cholim (visiting the sick), the Jewish value of gemilut chasadim is derived from a mandate to emulate the Divine in all that we do. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out,

"The [ancient] rabbis considered God to be the original exemplar of acts of loving-kindness [and] the Torah itself commands people to walk in His ways [Deuteronomy 13:15]. Thus because God clothed the naked - "And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them" [Genesis 3:21] - you should clothe and naked. Because God visited the sick –"The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebrinths of Mamre" [Genesis 18:1] –you too should visit the sick. Because God buried the dead –"He buried [Moses] in the valley of Moab" [Deuteronmy 34:6] –you too should bury the dead. Because God comforted mourners –"And it came to pass after the death of Abraham that God blessed his son Isaac" [Genesis 25:11]–you too should comfort mourners (based on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a.)"(3)

Thus, according to the value of imitatio Dei so central to Judaism, the Jewish community should be prepared and ready to offer all basic living support to people with AIDS as well as to assist those who eventually die of AIDS in their dying process. - helping to make funeral and burial arrangements, and proving ongoing bereavement support to the dying person's loved ones.

4).Torat ha-guf : care of the body: Jewish teaching has historically emphasized meticulous care for the human body, since it is considered to be the vessel for God's presence and reflection. In the twelfth-century, the famed Jewish philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides. summarized basic Jewish teaching on the body as follows:

Since by keeping the body in health and vigor one walks in the ways of God - it being impossible during sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator - it is a man's duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.(4)

Lest Maimonides' comment seem to condemn a person with AIDS for having failed to avoid "whatever is injurious to the body," Maimonides does not suggest that illness itself is a consequence of any moral failure. This is simply an admonition to do whatever one can to avoid illness. Once illness comes, however, the sick person must be dutifully cared for. Maimonides words should be taken more in the spirit of a teaching for the contemporary Jewish community: that it should be actively engaged in the health and sex education of its community members, particularly its young people. As in many cultures, sexual orientation


3 Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wsdom. p. 24 - 25.

4 Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah "Laws Concerning Moral Dispositions and Ethical Conduct,* ch. 4, section 1. and sexual behavior have been little discussed topics in the Jewish world. This silence again seems to originate in the deep social taboos regarding sex in general. And yet,. there is a profound irony in the communal silence. On the one hand, Jews have used the notion of moral ecology to support the belief that promiscuity or inappropriate sexual behavior will be divinely punished (in the form of disease). On the other hand, this same Jewish community has been reticent to educate its young people about the realistic consequences of certain types of sexual behavior. Given this fact, promotion of the value of torat ha-guf (care for the body) could be an important catalyst for the establishment of effective sexual education programs with the Jewish community center, synagogue and Jewish day school world. This would certainly constitute one important response to the AIDS epidemic,

B. Social values:

1. Kol Yisra'el M16&m zeh la-zetr communal LeMosibilfty. "All Jews are responsible one for another,* the Babylonian TaImud(5) teaches. This dictum was intended to convey the message that when a Jewish person is in need (whether financially, emotionally, or physically), it is always the responsibility of other Jews to assist him/her. Thus, in accordance with this central value, the Jews should establish communal mechanisms and institutions to address the needs of community members with AIDS. Such institutions should include: medical, psychological and social service agencies, financially supported and sponsored by the Jewish community.

2.Tzedakah : charity: The Jewish value of "charity" goes beyond the Christian notion of caritas, in that it encompasses the notion that all charity is actually a religious obligation aimed at balancing the scales of social justice. The Hebrew word, tzedakah itself derives from the noun, tzedek, which means "justice." Thus, offering financial or other forms of charity to people with AIDS not only falls under the category of gemilut chasadim as described above, but also constitutes a religious obligation. The religious Jewish community's charitable response to the AIDS epidemic should extend far beyond the confines of financial support; it should also enter into the arena of legislative and judicial advocacy on behalf of people with AIDS. In this way, the Jewish community would be fulfilling the biblical commandment, "justice, justice you shall pursue." (6)

A final thought: As the Jewish community has distanced itself from those afflicted with AIDS, it might do well to consider that redemption for the Jewish people, and the world- as a whole, might very well be found precisely in the afflicted comers of our society:

"Where," Rabbi Joshua asked, "shall I find the Messiah?

"At the gate of the city," [the prophet] Elijah replied.

"How shall I recognize him

"He sits among the lepers." 

"Among the lepers?* cried Rabbi Joshua. "What is he doing there?" 

"He changes their bandages," Elijah answered "He changes them one by one."(7)

In a sermon on AIDS, delivered in 1985, Rabbi Robert Kirschner urged his congregants to reach out to people with AIDS. Citing the Talmudical story of Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Kirschner explained: in the days of our sages, to be a leper was not only to be

afflicted with a disease but to be despised for it. It was not only to die a terrible death, but to be accused of deserving it.8

5 BaWonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot- 39a

6 Deuteronomy 16:20

7 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 98a

afflicted with a disease but to be despised for it. It was not only to die a terrible death, but to be accused of deserving it.(8)

Rabbi Kirschner's words succinctly sum up the "dis-ease" of moral etiology. As I see it, the challenge to the contemporary religious Jewish community is to relegate the notion of moral etiology, at least as it pertains to physiological and emotional illness, to the trash-heap of history. The challenge is to set in motion a more compassionate and fully values-driven Jewish approach, an approach that promotes and supports all communal projects that actualize the ideals of communal responsibility, justice, deeds of loving- kindness, care for the body, and respect for the dignity of all humans as described in these pages. When such actualization of Jewish values takes place, we will be well on the way to redemption.

8 Robert Kirschner, in a 1985 Yom Kippur sermon, quoted in Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, ed&, Touah Choices: Jewish Pacwm&es on Social Justice pp. 236 - 237.