Parashat Tazria

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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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.

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Rabbi Roderick Young discovered that he was Jewish at the age of 23. He received ordination from Hebrew Union College, and served the Leicester Progressive Community in England, the West London Synagogue, and Finchley Reform Synagogue.