Embracing the Modern-Day Metzora

How we can restore dignity to the diseased.

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The Stigma of Diagnosis

The restoration of dignity and community at this ritual's heart has palpable ramifications for our response to the global HIV/AIDS crisis. While there certainly has been much progress on this front, the isolation of people living with HIV/AIDS remains a trenchant obstacle decades into the pandemic. Individuals are still abandoned by family and community, left to suffer alone. The ill resist testing because of the stigma that diagnosis brings. And as the pandemic spreads, it imports its shame and isolation anew.

This heart-breaking situation is probably best expressed in the words of Anyo, a Burmese woman living with HIV. She recounts:   

“My life has been on a downward spiral ever since [I was diagnosed]. Even my closest friends wouldn't speak to me. I decided to return to my village…to be with my family, but never told them about my condition. Where I live, people…would never accept me and I was afraid of the stigma I would face. In [Burma], learning you are HIV-positive is like receiving a death sentence….”

Like Anyo, those living with HIV/AIDS too-often become our modern-day metzoraim, stigmatized by sickness, shamed by affliction, and banished from community.

Restoring Dignity

Just as the priest restored the metzora's dignity through his anointing touch, we have a duty to restore dignity and community to people living with HIV/AIDS--to provide them with more than medicine and clinical treatment. Critical in this effort are those grassroots projects throughout the world--such as those supported by AJWS--that fight discrimination and educate communities to reduce isolation and stigma.

At the core of the metzora's purification ritual is the silent injunction that we are to encounter each other not only as healer and patient, priest and metzora, but as human beings. Such encounters have the potential to embrace the metzora back into Israel's encampment, and the individual living with HIV/AIDS into her community--each with dignity, each with humanity, each created b'tzelem elo-him, in the Divine image of God.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.