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.
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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.
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.