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
, 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 (