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    A Jewish moral perspective on AIDS

    Rarely in history has society been gripped by a fear of disease to the extent that we are experiencing today with the shock waves that AIDS has sent throughout the whole of humanity.

    The moral issues involved in the AIDS crisis have been addressed by representatives of all the religious traditions, and obviously Judaism, the pioneer of the Biblical moral conscience, has seen considerable research and writing on the problem and its wider ramifications.

    But first, a comment on the theological dimension – the claim emanating from some fundamentalist circles that AIDS is God’s punishment for human immorality.

    Obviously Biblical ethics is based on the principle that deeds have consequences and no-one can escape Divine scrutiny. But has anyone the moral right to be so certain that AIDS has been sent on earth as a Divine visitation upon certain types of transgressions? Has anyone the moral right to declare this or any other form of suffering the expression of God’s wrath?

    There are sinners of many kinds and many seem to survive and to be well and prosperous: does this mean God is not angry with them?

    There are countless perfectly innocent people who suffer indescribable anxieties and agonies: does this mean they are really closet sinners, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and they must have done something wrong to suffer so?

    Fascinating philosophical problems, all of them – but faced with an existential crisis, is it not less important for us to decide whether we are entitled to deem AIDS Divine in origin or not, than to know what is the appropriate moral response to the actual situation that confronts us and our society?

    The first consideration in the moral assessment of the problem is the moral duty towards oneself.

    The Jewish tradition here articulates the principle, based on the Biblical verse, “You shall carefully guard your lives”, that it is wrong to place yourself in a dangerous situation or to take risks with your life and health.

    • It is a religious and moral duty to lead a controlled lifestyle and avoid types of sexual and other self-indulgence that are likely or relatively likely to be hazardous to life or health.

    • Blood or body fluid contact with AIDS sufferers must be avoided. Even a merely potential danger must be avoided.

    • An AIDS sufferer must seek medical treatment. In the same way any person who is or may be ill must avail himself of the resources of the healing professions. He may not say, “God will heal me if He wishes”; for Judaism, the doctor is the earthly instrument of the Divine healer.

    Nor may he say, “It’s my body, after all”, for Judaism, the body belongs to God, the Heavenly landlord, and man must respect and care for the Almighty’s property.

    • A health practitioner must take such precautions as medical responsibility (not mere human hysteria) tells him are necessary, but he may not withhold his skills from any patient, including an AIDS sufferer.

    • Non-professionals in the health field (e.g. parents and teachers and others who come into frequent contact with people) are not usually able to take an objective view and their subjective feelings of fear must be taken seriously. Judaism believes that there is a moral duty to take account of people’s perception of a situation, even where the actual danger level may be slight.

    • A patient may not willfully jeopardise his health further by submitting to untried or possibly hazardous procedures even in the search for an AIDS cure. The fact that he may be doomed anyway does not give him the moral right to shorten his life still further.

    A second range of moral questions involves one’s duties towards other people.

    Biblical teaching enshrines the principle, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, and offers countless instances of ways in which you must protect other people from harm – including “You shall not place a stumbling-block before the blind”, which implies not denying a person the information he needs in order to be safe. Hence:

    • Despite the inherent right of a person to privacy, AIDS sufferers and carriers may not withhold information about their situation if they could protect others from harm.

    • Certain categories of people have a justified entitlement to information about others; e.g. employers, insurers and certainly, marriage partners are entitled to know your medical condition if this would be germane to their relationship to you.

    • Neither other individuals nor society at large may shun, ostracise or humiliate an AIDS sufferer. Your moral judgement (if any) as to the activities that might have caused his AIDS is irrelevant to your moral duty to treat him with compassion, care and concern.

    The current AIDS information campaign raises a further range of moral questions, involving society’s responsibilities to its members.

    • By focussing on “safe” or “safer” sex and the use of condoms, is not society stating that any type of sexual practice is in itself equally acceptable? Has society become morally neutral, abdicating previously held positions that regarded heterosexual marriage as the norm and anything else as deviant?

    At what point does a previously disapproved practice become society’s norm? Do not those who believe in traditional marriage and educating children to see sex as the prerogative of husband and wife, have a right to the support of society? Judaism is sure they do.

    • By implying that a course of conduct becomes acceptable if more people are practising it, is not society opting for the statistical theory of ethics (“if enough people behave in a certain way, that behaviour becomes kosher”)? Is it not equally logical to say that because violence is increasing in society, it must be acceptable to be violent?

    The Biblical tradition prefers the position of Elijah, even though he may not have the numbers, to that of the four hundred prophets of Baal.

    Judaism joins representatives of likeminded moral traditions in urging a different thrust to the AIDS information campaign. It agrees that condoms may help to control the spread of AIDS, but in the long run it is certain that a more controlled lifestyle is what we should be promoting as the much safer course than “safe” sex.

    This article was first published in December 1988.

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