Parashat Metzora

Is It Blasphemous To Heal People?

Even if we view leprosy as a punishment, we must work to heal the afflicted, allowing our sense of compassion to override justice or logic.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Our ancestors, like others in the ancient Near East, suffered from frequent eruptions of a variety of skin diseases, called 'tzara'at.' Many of these 'leprosies' were quite severe, and they carried a severe social stigma in every culture in the ancient world. Countless stories in the Bible and the Talmud attest to the dread consequences of this illness and the devastation it could bring into the lives of individuals, families and communities.

According to the biblical view of how the world works, 'tzara'at'--like all illness--was a divine punishment. If everything comes from the One God, then illness, too, must have its origin in Divine will. The logical assumption was that people got their illnesses because they deserved them. The only aspect open to question was to ask which illness resulted from which deed. 

A Response to What?

According to the midrash [commentary] Va-Yikra Rabbah, God inflicted this dread illness as a response to libel, bloodshed, vain oaths, sexual crimes, robbery and refusing to pay 'tzedakah' (charity). It would follow that if God punishes through illness, then anyone who tries to heal the sick would be the equivalent of one who helps a murderer escape from prison.

healingLogically, a physician who heals a leper (or anyone whose illness is understood to come from God) is violating God's plan, rebelling against the way God rules the universe. The refusal to heal is a logical, religious position, one to which some modern religions adhere at great cost to their adherents, and at even greater cost to the children of those fanatics. Logical, yes. But also cruel.

Such a viewpoint requires blaming an individual for being sick--as if we could "earn" cancer or heart disease, as if the wrong thoughts are enough to merit pain and death. Such a viewpoint treats a victim like a criminal, ultimately withholding sympathy, company or care.

Judaism has always valued the mind. "Talmudic" is a synonym for "logical" and has been throughout the ages. Yet, logic was not permitted to restrain compassion. Our overriding obligation, according to rabbinic tradition, is for humanity to become God's partners in creation--actively applying our learning and our skill to intervening and improving upon the world as we find it.

Where a Jew finds illness, she is commanded to heal. Where a Jew finds hunger, he is commanded to feed. Where a Jew finds suffering, we are commanded to identify with the sufferer and to alleviate their pain.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.