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Isha Bekia

The Torah’s perspective on HIV/AIDS

Jun 4, 2007 | Current Affairs, SA Media


HIV/AIDS poses moral challenges to us all. The sanctity of human life is a central pillar of the Hebrew Bible, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Book of Deuteronomy (30:19) reads: “I place before you today life and death, the blessing and the curse; now therefore choose life.” Judaism teaches that to uphold the sanctity of life we have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to protect every human being from harm, which includes physical disease. This responsibility begins with ourselves, and, at its most basic level, this means that we have a duty to look after our own physical health. Thus, Maimonides writes that physical health is to be pursued as “one of the ways of the service of G-d”.
It follows that those who have the disease have a responsibility to find and utilise the best available treatment, determined by accepted medical science, and that those who suspect that they may have contracted the virus have a duty to test themselves. In this regard many South African leaders have set the example by being tested themselves as part of the campaign of the Sunday Times to encourage testing to remove any stigma which may result from it. I have, together with other religious leaders, participated in this campaign to help save lives.
We all have the obligation to help those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, or any other illness for that matter. Judaism refers to this moral duty under the broader category of visiting the sick, which the Talmud defines as not only visiting socially, but also assisting the ill person both physically and emotionally. All South Africans have a moral duty to assist those who may be living with this disease in a manner that addresses their physical and emotional needs. The latter require a special sensitivity not to insult or ostracise any victim.  Our hearts go out with love and deepest sympathy to all who are afflicted. We pray for the restoration of their health, and we pray too for the very many families who have lost precious loved ones.
The fact that HIV/AIDS is primarily sexually transmitted places the fate of each one of us firmly in our own hands, and provides us with the motivation of rededicating ourselves as individuals and as a society to the sanctity of sex and marriage.  Judaism teaches that sex in a loving and committed relationship of marriage is very holy, and even spiritual. It bonds two people together in a most profound way. When sex is abused as a means of selfish and immediate gratification then its potential holiness and blissful joy is defiled and destroyed. This idea is expressed in the Hebrew language of the Bible. The word for marriage is kidushin, which is derived from the word kedusha meaning holiness. The Biblical word for a promiscuous person is kadesha, which has the same grammatical root as the word for holiness – kedusha. The message is clear: sex has the potential to be holy or base, depending on the context. Sex in marriage is holy; outside of marriage it is not. In the context of marriage sex brings husband and wife together in an act of giving as the Book of Genesis (2:24) says: “A man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh”.
The HIV/AIDS crisis causes terrible suffering. But from the suffering we must rededicate ourselves to creating a society founded upon strong families and the sanctity of marriage. The future of the new South Africa depends on it. Our children are the next generation of South Africans. The society they create will depend on how we raise them. We have the solemn duty to provide them with loving, faithful marriages as models, where sex is a holy act of giving and not a selfish act of taking, and where violence or unkindness is anathema. This, of course, by no means an easy challenge in today’s rootless and rudderless world. Ensuring that our children grow up in warm, stable families provides them with the priceless gift of emotional stability and strength and lays the foundation for this beloved country of ours to triumph over the daunting and challenging problems which will test us all in the future.
South Africans are not strangers to adversity. We have in our past overcome obstacles which seemed insurmountable. Let us resolve to overcome this terrible tragedy too and to become stronger from it, let our sorrow become the seed of our salvation, as the Book of Psalms (126:5) says: “May those who sowed in tears, reap in joy.”
Published as part of the Sunday Times campaign to encourage HIV testing, which the Chief Rabbi personally participated in.