HIV/AIDS And The Jewish Tradition: Concepts And Sources
The Jewish tradition contains rich resources for dealing with many of the issues we confront when dealing with HIV/AIDS. Above all, the tradition's respect for human life mandates that we do everything possible to prevent the further spread of the disease. Alongside the mandate for education and prevention, there is much that our tradition has to teach about care and compassion for those who are ill. Below is a brief glossary of halakhic and theological concepts related to HIV/AIDS and the sources in which they can be found.
Hatzalat Nefashot and Shmirat Ha-Guf -- Saving Lives and Preventing Bodily Harm: The Mishna declares that one who saves a single life is like one who has saved the entire world (Sanhedrin 4:5). Indeed, Jews must respond to a situation of pikuach nefesh (life endangerment) even at the cost of violating the Sabbath or most other commandments (Talmud, Yoma 85b; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, sec. 336). In the case of HIV/AIDS, this means that synagogues must make special efforts to implement appropriate education and prevention programs at all levels of congregational activity, including staff and congregants, young members and old. This is required, despite the fear and discomfort encountered when dealing with HIV/AIDS. The Bible exhorts, "Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your fellow" (Lev. 19:16).
Another biblical passage urges "take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously" (Deut. 4:9), which the rabbis have understood as an obligation to guard one's physical health, especially by avoiding dangerous situations or behaviors (Talmud Berakhot 32b; Maimondies, Hilkhot Rotzeah 11:4 and Hilkhot De'ot 4:1ff; and Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat, 427:8).
Bikkur Holim -- Visiting the Sick: Judaism recognizes that illness affects the whole person, presenting threats not only to the body, but also to one's mental state and financial stability. This is especially true with HIV/AIDS. Bikkur holim -- the mitzvah of visiting the sick -- ensures that the needs of the sick are attended to in all of these areas, creating a spiritual and emotional support system to complement the work of medical doctors (Talmud, Nedarim 39b-40a, Sotah 14a and Berakhot 5b; Maimonides, Hilkhot Eivel 14:4-5; Shulhan Arukh, Yore Deah 235-238).
The Bikkur Holim Committee of Congregation Adas Israel of Washington, DC, has produced a handbook for visiting the sick. To find out how your synagogue can start a bikkur holim committee or to receive a copy of the handbook, contact Rabbi Avis Miller at 202/362-4433. Also, an excellent guide to bikkur holim by Rabbi Meyer Strassfeld can be found in The Third Jewish Catalog, edited by Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, pp. 140-145. Specific considerations for visiting people living with AIDS are discussed in Being A Blessing by Rabbi Harris R. Goldstein (See Jewish Materials section).
Shituf bi-tza'ar -- Empathizing With a Person in Pain: All Jews are responsible for the fate of one another (kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh -- Talmud, Shavuot 39a), and a powerful sign of that responsibility is the willingness to share in someone else's suffering or grief. By visiting and helping people with HIV/AIDS, and by forming support groups for them and their friends and loved ones in the synagogue, we show faithfulness and solidarity with those among us who are suffering among us. We also emulate the compassion of God, who promises "When he calls for me, I will answer him; I will be with him in distress" (Psalms 91:15).
Hesed shel Emet -- Unrequired Kindness: Just before Jacob died, he asked Joseph to promise that he would not remain buried in Egypt, pleading "deal kindly and truly with me" (Gen. 47:29). The rabbis ask, would Joseph ever think to treat his father otherwise? No, they answer. Jacob's words teach us that caring for those unable to return the kindness is a higher form of giving, called hesed shel emet ("True kindness" -- Midrash Genesis Rabbah 96:5).
While the tradition singles out burial of the dead as the paradigm of hesed shel emet, all efforts to help and comfort those who are struggling with a life-threatening disease are worthy of special praise. Regarding burial in particular, Rabbi Joel Roth, former Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, has ruled that "since adequate precautionary measures are available, there is no halakhic basis for withholding the taharah process (washing of the corpse) by the funeral parlor or the hevra kaddisha." (Rabbi Roth's ruling is not an official ruling of the CJLS; a full treatment of the halakhic issues regarding the burial of those who have died from AIDS is currently being prepared by the Committee.)