A Gay Perspective On Punishment And Disease

Understanding God's presence in disease means viewing illness not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to treat others as created in the image of God.

Commentary on Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

Every June, as thousands of people march down New York’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate Gay Pride, four or five individuals stand on the sidewalk proclaiming that AIDS is a punishment from God. Sometimes, a few of them are Jews, and I always wonder what kind of God they think would use disease as a punishment.

During festival days, one way in which our liturgy seeks to describe God is by taking a part of Exodus 34:6-7 and inserting it into the Torah service: “Adonai, Adonai, God merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.”

The end of verse 7, which tells how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, is deliberately omitted.The message of the liturgy is clear — as Jews we must seek out the compassionate side of God and not the punitive one. Ours is not a God who gives people polio, cancer, or AIDS as punishment.

And yet at first glance this week’s portion, Tazria (“she gives birth”), might seem to suggest just such a vindictive God. Tazria is largely concerned with discovering and interpreting marks upon the skin (tzara’at). The exact meaning of this word is unclear; traditionally it has been translated as “leprosy,” although it probably included many different skin conditions.

Into Isolation

Parashat Tazria tells us that the person suffering from tzara’at had to leave the encampment and go into isolation, until a priest had decided that she or he might return. This is not because the Israelites knew tzara’at to be contagious, but rather because they believed it to be an impurity that was a sign of God’s anger, and such impurity had no place within the encampment.

We know that the Israelites believed tzara’at was caused by God, because it is described in this portion as a nega, which specifically means a plague sent by God as punishment. If we need proof, we can look back at Genesis 12:17, where we find: “Adonai plagued (naga) Pharaoh with mighty plagues (n’ga’im).”

At the end of Tazria, we discover that clothes may also suffer from tzara’at (mildew?) and then in next week’s portion we see that houses, too, may break out in tzara’at (rising dampness?). So tzara’at is not just a disease: It can be a building problem, a laundry crisis or a skin ailment. It is clear that the Israelites thought of these specific outbreaks as a punishment from God.

Today we understand that mildew and damp in houses and clothes are caused by atmospheric conditions. And we know that leprosy is the quite specific result of a (now curable) viral infection. Our scientific knowledge has allowed us to solve many physical manifestations that were mysterious, and this knowledge means that we can alleviate suffering, that we can work with God to better the world in which we live.

But our scientific knowledge does not absolve us from the challenge of trying to understand how God speaks to us today through the descriptions of tzara’at in the Torah. Our ancestors saw punishment at the heart of tzara’at — what might lie at its heart for us?

Tzara’at was interpreted by the Rabbis of the Talmud as being the manifestation of a very particular sin. A person with tzara’at is called a metzora (usually translated as “leper”). To the rabbinic ear, this sounded like the words “motzi ra,” (“bring about evil”) which in the phrase “motzi shaym ra” means “to spread slander about someone.” Tzara’at was therefore understood to be a specific warning against gossip and slander.

The rabbis show us how tzara’at can remain a powerful metaphor, in which we discern the hand of God. With the rabbis looking over our shoulders, let’s understand tzara’at as a timeless warning against cruel and evil speech and action.

True Tzara’at

Those who stand on the sidewalks of life and declare that AIDS and other diseases are a punishment from God are the ones who exhibit true tzara’at. They are guilty of slandering the ill and of slandering God.

It is this tzara’at, this slander, that needs to be placed outside of the encampment; [this slander] it is a plague which has no place within our communities. We are all made b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. We only do justice to that image when we are merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness.

God is indeed present in AIDS, cancer, polio, in all diseases. For God is present in the way in which we respond to illness in others. When we visit the sick, or raise money to fight disease, then God is present. And when we are the ones who are sick, perhaps we will discern the face of God in a doctor, a nurse, a family member, a friend.

In Tony Kushner’s monumental play Angels in America, Louis, a young Jewish man from New York, deserts his boyfriend, Prior, because Prior has developed AIDS. Louis can not cope with the sight of the sores that are disfiguring his partner’s skin. Rather than caring for Prior, he runs away.

But then, of course, he is rightly filled with guilt. He says to a mutual friend: “I tripped on the subway steps and my glasses broke and I cut my forehead, here, see, and now I can’t see much and my forehead…its like the Mark of Cain, stupid, right, but it won’t heal and every morning I see it and I think, Biblical things, Mark of Cain…”

Louis feels that, as Cain was given a mark by God after he committed the first murder in the Bible, it as if he too has been marked by God for running away. Of course, God didn’t put the mark on Louis; it’s just a simple cut. But what is best in Louis, his humanity, his love, responds to the sight of the wound. Louis begins an inner healing and eventually he returns to Prior.

In that sense, we can say that God worked through the mark upon his forehead. The lesions on Prior’s body are not tzara’at. The tzara’at resides within Louis, and he finally has the courage to face it.

The “angels” in the title of Kushner’s play are ultimately those humans who fight the terrible disease with dignity and those who work to end it. Parshat Tazria is our wake-up call that we are not free to ignore disease just because we are healthy.

Tazria demands instead that we wage war against disease, and that we work for a cure. We may not find that cure, but we must be part of the fight — in the words of the ancient rabbinic text, “The Sayings of the Ancestors:” “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.”

Or as Prior says in the final words of Kushner’s magnificent play: “And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

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