In honor of World AIDS Day on December 1, we bring you a meditation on the connection between tzara’at, a Biblical skin affliction often mistranslated as leprosy, and HIV/AIDS. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 60 million people have contracted HIV and approximately 30 million have died of AIDS-related causes. Gregg Drinkwater, Keshet’s Colorado Regional Director, reflected on joint Torah portions that discuss tzara’at in-depth, and how they relate to a more modern-day understanding of how we treat people living with HIV and AIDS.
In the recent American presidential campaign [of 2008], a storm of controversy briefly swirled around the right-wing Republican candidate Mike Huckabee over comments he made in the early 1990s favoring quarantine for people living with HIV. Support for isolating HIV-positive individuals was quite common in the mid-1980s (an LA Times poll in December 1985 found 51% of Americans in favor), but by late 2007, when Huckabee’s comments re-surfaced, such opinions had been relegated to the far right and seemed beyond the pale. – Limmud Colorado editors
Reading the paired Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora, I can’t get the image of Huckabee out of my head. I see the fear of HIV-positive people burning from the page in the Torah’s detailed instructions for isolating those suffering from tzara’at, a skin disease of mysterious origin. For hundreds of years, tzara’at was commonly translated as “leprosy,” but most commentators now hold that the descriptions of tzara’at in this portion refer to some other, unknown skin affliction. What brings me to connect Jewish teachings about tzara’at with Huckabee’s fearful and bigoted response to HIV is the element they share of blaming the victim.
Whatever actual physical condition tzara’at may resemble, the Sages saw the affliction as the physical symptom of a spiritual disease, as a form of divine punishment for a moral failing. The Rabbis turn to word plays and a range of biblical sources to connect tzara’at with wickedness. They draw a link between slander (lashon hara) and tzara’at from several sources, including the punishment received by Miriam in the Book of Numbers after she and Aaron challenge Moses’ authority as a prophet and speak against his wife. For her transgression, God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with tzara’at, turning her skin as white as snow.
In the Talmud, the Rabbis examine metzora, the word for a person afflicted with tzara’at, and imagine it as a contraction of “motzi shem ra,” or “spreading a bad name.” In Tractate Arachin 16a, they go even further, linking tzara’at with a range of transgressions, including the sins of bloodshed, false oaths, sexual immorality, pride, robbery and selfishness. The isolation of the metzora, then, is presented as a justified communal ostracism of someone in need of repentance. By being forced outside the camp and disconnected from the community, the metzora experiences the pain he or she has imposed on others and will hopefully be driven to reexamine his or her wicked ways.
People living with HIV or AIDS have likewise often been blamed for their disease, with their suffering understood by right-wing pundits and religious leaders as divine retribution for moral failure, namely the “sin” of homosexuality. That most people living with HIV today are not gay is beside the point. The HIV epidemic’s roots in the gay community have forever connected the disease with moral and religious arguments about gay sex, even in the Jewish community. Although Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, z”l, never suggested that AIDS was a divine punishment, he did cite “loose living” in reference to AIDS in a 1998 speech in the House of Lords and was famously quoted as saying in a debate about AIDS that “more important than clean needles are clean conduct and clean thoughts.” (Jakobovits also advocated for genetic engineering to prevent the birth of gay people.)
The link between tzara’at and HIV becomes even more vivid for me when I recall Kaposi’s sarcoma skin lesions as a common marker of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic. Although much less common today, in the 1980s the purple skin eruptions of KS functioned as an identifiable symbol of the disease, visually marking those with AIDS as if with a tattoo. Those with active KS lesions often went to great lengths to cover the eruptions, acutely aware of the mixture of intolerance, fear, pity and shame this visual signifier of their disease sparked in others. Just as the metzora in Parashat Tazria is to visually mark him or herself and call out “tamei, tamei!” (contaminated, contaminated!) when confronting other people, so did people with AIDS metaphorically “wear” the scarlet letter of their affliction in the epidemic’s early years.
Like the Sages of old, we too look upon certain illnesses and presume to judge. Whether our judgment is based in fear or ignorance matters little to those bearing the burden of societal disapproval when their energies should be focused on healing. In the context of Parashat Tazria, the irony, of course, is that if the Rabbis presume the metzora is guilty of lashon hara simply based on his or her physical appearance, then perhaps the Rabbis themselves can and should be called out. Those who project meaning onto someone else’s illness without knowing the details of the afflicted person are themselves guilty of slander, are they not? The idea of linking the metzora with wickedness emerges through midrash and exegesis. It is not inherent in the Levitical text itself. In Parashat Tazria, tzara’at is presented as a physical disease healed through spiritual ritual and the intervention of the priest as shaman/mediator. But the Rabbis have moved from the p’shat, or direct reading, and reversed the flow, transforming tzara’at into a physical manifestation of a spiritual disease. But if we’re going to make such an exegetical move, then perhaps the real spiritual disease hidden in the text is this desire to judge others and presume guilt.
Let us instead return to the redemptive potential inherent in the Torah. The metzora is ultimately reintegrated into the community through the priest’s mediating touch. As an embodied representative of the spiritual community, he literally anoints the metzora and brings him or her back into the fold, reestablishing the covenant of mutuality that is the cornerstone of community. Is that not what Torah demands of us today, in the face of HIV/AIDS and those among us stigmatized through ignorance and fear? We are called upon to reach out, not to push away, to reconnect, not to judge. When I remind myself of this, a bit of light begins to emerge from the darkness.