Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Our ancestors, like others in the ancient Near East, suffered from frequent eruptions of a variety of skin diseases, called ‘tzara’at.’ Many of these ‘leprosies’ were quite severe, and they carried a severe social stigma in every culture in the ancient world. Countless stories in the Bible and the Talmud attest to the dread consequences of this illness and the devastation it could bring into the lives of individuals, families and communities.
According to the biblical view of how the world works, ‘tzara’at’–like all illness–was a divine punishment. If everything comes from the One God, then illness, too, must have its origin in Divine will. The logical assumption was that people got their illnesses because they deserved them. The only aspect open to question was to ask which illness resulted from which deed.
A Response to What?
According to the midrash [commentary] Va-Yikra Rabbah, God inflicted this dread illness as a response to libel, bloodshed, vain oaths, sexual crimes, robbery and refusing to pay ‘tzedakah‘ (charity). It would follow that if God punishes through illness, then anyone who tries to heal the sick would be the equivalent of one who helps a murderer escape from prison.
Logically, a physician who heals a leper (or anyone whose illness is understood to come from God) is violating God’s plan, rebelling against the way God rules the universe. The refusal to heal is a logical, religious position, one to which some modern religions adhere at great cost to their adherents, and at even greater cost to the children of those fanatics. Logical, yes. But also cruel.
Such a viewpoint requires blaming an individual for being sick–as if we could “earn” cancer or heart disease, as if the wrong thoughts are enough to merit pain and death. Such a viewpoint treats a victim like a criminal, ultimately withholding sympathy, company or care.
Judaism has always valued the mind. “Talmudic” is a synonym for “logical” and has been throughout the ages. Yet, logic was not permitted to restrain compassion. Our overriding obligation, according to rabbinic tradition, is for humanity to become God’s partners in creation–actively applying our learning and our skill to intervening and improving upon the world as we find it.
Where a Jew finds illness, she is commanded to heal. Where a Jew finds hunger, he is commanded to feed. Where a Jew finds suffering, we are commanded to identify with the sufferer and to alleviate their pain.
According to Midrash Temurah, the psalmist compares people to grass because “just as the tree, if not weeded, fertilized and plowed, will not grow and bring forth its fruits, so with the human body.” The fertilizer is the medicine and the means of healing, and the tiller of the earth is the physician.”
The Talmud understands the biblical injunction “not to stand (idly) by the blood of your brother” as mandating medical care. Rambam sees that obligation in the verse, “Let your brother live with you” and in “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Perhaps Judaism’s rejection of the ‘logical’ position reflects a different notion of how God and people are to relate. Rather than viewing God as an unchanging monarch and humanity as the passive recipient of whatever happens, the Jewish view of God and people is much more that of mutual lovers–both of whom desire the other to take an active role in developing their relationship and in making their house a home.
Judaism understands that we human beings have an active role in making our house–this earth–a home. By caring for its occupants, we demonstrate not blasphemy, but love–both for God and for God’s creatures.
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