December 1 is observed as World AIDS Day. Around this date it is fitting to take stock of the social and spiritual impact of HIV and AIDS on Judaism and Jewish communal life.
A Brief History
Early reports of AIDS in the USA date back to the 1970s, however early AIDS deaths were largely ignored. The illness began to catch the attention of the mainstream media in the summer of 1981 when the New York Times reported an outbreak of a new “cancer” amongst otherwise healthy young gay men in California and New York. In those early months AIDS was not well understood and became known in the media as the “gay cancer,” leading to stigmatization and a rise in homophobia.
In the ensuing years, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was identified as the virus that leads to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) and it began to be recognized in people beyond the gay community. In New York City ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 as the most vocal group aiming to end the AIDS crisis through direct action. The group introduced the slogans “Silence = Death” and “Action = Life,” highlighting the need to speak out and break the taboos surrounding AIDS in order to save lives.
Beginning in the late 1990s, advances in antiretroviral drug therapies slowed the rate of AIDS deaths in North America. However, AIDS deaths continue to be a regular part of life. In 2008, 4.3 million people worldwide were infected with HIV, including 530,000 children under age 15.
AIDS is still frequently discussed in whispers at the edges of our communities, but Jewish tradition speaks in a different voice about the need to name illness out loud. Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Leviticus are entirely devoted to recounting the details of contagious diseases. While these diseases are certainly stigmatized in the Bible, Jewish tradition teaches us to chant these passages aloud in synagogue. Jewish law prohibits skipping passages that may seem grotesque or disturbing to some.