This week I was sick.
Normally I’d think it self-indulgent to talk about that, but here in Manchester, where Disability and sickness play such a key part in so many congregants’ lives, I think it’s important to discuss it. For those of us with chronic illness and disability, sickness isn’t just something that happens, but something that has multi-layered meanings.
It was just flu. Normally, it wouldn’t be worthy of remark. But I have a spine disease for which I take injections of immunosuppressants, so the flu knocked me out cold. I slept pretty much non-stop for three days. I just ate bread.
But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, the spine disease I have is made better by exercise and aggravated by inactivity. So after just a day of doing nothing, my joints started to fuse and swell. My back, neck and jaw were in pain.
But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, sickness is mind-numbingly boring. I feel like a healthy person in my head, and like my body is just getting in the way of all the things I want to do. I looked at my to-do-list, and wondered how a previous me ever imagined I’d have the energy for all of it.
But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault.
No matter how progressive I am, or how far removed those kinds of ideas are from my own theology, I couldn’t escape believing, at some level, that this sickness was a punishment.
It’s not hard to see why. That is a major lesson from this week’s parashah. It concerns צָרָ֑עַת – commonly translated as ‘leprosy’, although it would be better understood as ‘fungal skin disease’. From the sounds of the text, this was quite a common infection that afflicted people. It appeared as white blotches, then disappeared after a few days.
When suspected of having this infection, a person is required to bring themselves before the priest who, after examining it, would declare them impure. The person with this impurity is then completely ostracised. They rent their garments and pull their hair as if in mourning. They go through the streets shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” They are prohibited from living with the others and remain in isolation until all signs of the disease have disappeared. If the infection disappears, the priest performs a sacrificial sin-offering on their behalf to purify them.
What is clear throughout this text is that, if somebody has this kind of sickness, they are morally dangerous. It is not just that their medical state might be infectious; it is that the guilt from the sin they’ve committed might be spread too. By the very fact of being sick, the person with fungal skin disease poses a risk to the entire community.
Their danger comes from the fact that they have done wrong. The Torah makes this even clearer later in the book of Numbers. There, Miriam criticises Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. As punishment, God afflicts her with this very fungal skin disease. She is forced to exclude herself and ritually immerse to cleanse herself of guilt. Clearly, wrongdoing can be punished by sickness in the world of Torah.
In the world of the rabbis, the very fact of becoming sick is evidence of having sinned. The Talmud tells us: “The Sages taught: One who became ill and tended toward death, they say to him: Confess, as all those executed by the courts confess.” More than that, according to Rav Oshaya, just thinking about committing a sin can be enough to bring on skin diseases. This comes as part of an overall sugya that spells out how sins are punished by stillbirth, infant mortality, spousal death, exile and war.
These ideas are, I hope, troubling to the modern mind. We might want to apologise for our forebearers by saying that they couldn’t have known. They didn’t have access to the medical knowledge we do today. They didn’t know where diseases came from or why they spread.
But that doesn’t answer the question: why, knowing all that we do, do these ideas persist? For all our scientific advancements, there is still so much stigma and blame attached to sickness. I began by apologising for even talking on the matter, because just mentioning sickness can feel like a burden. Moreover, despite medical diagnosis and a better understanding of biology than the rabbis, I cannot shake from myself the feeling that my illness is somehow a result of personal failings.
True enough, some aspects of bad health are down to my own actions. Every time I light up a cigarette, I am conscious that I’m endangering my health and making my condition worse. But it’s also interesting how quick people are to ascribe blame when they encounter somebody who is ill. Any sickness of any kind is often attributed to smoking, lifestyle, weight or, failing any of those, just a bad attitude.
It should be unsurprising then, that some of this feeling of blame carries over into our theology. In a culture that seeks to attribute responsibility for sickness onto sick people, it makes sense that people would also imagine that divine retribution plays a role.
I think all these different explanations for sickness – whether in the Torah, the Talmud, or our own society – come out of people’s own fear of lacking control. Ultimately, there is no telling who will get sick, or when, or why. The healthy want to imagine it could never happen to them. The sick want to find some meaning in it all. So we grasp for explanations. We invent reasons and rituals that explain away our fears. In our very human need for order, we imagine that God has some great plan that is being enacted on us.
Part of me wants to leave it there, and say that ultimately the truth about why people get sick is unknowable. Our rabbis did entertain this theory of divine retribution, but they left open others, never arrogant enough to claim they had a hold on absolute truth. As with so many things, questions of suffering are left to the Great Mystery that lies beyond our understanding.
But if we leave the question open, we leave room for an answer that is unconscionable. We leave open the possibility that the God we worship makes children disabled as punishment for the sins of their parents or their own past lives. We allow for the possibility that God exacts vengeance on people’s bodies through cancers and strokes. When we say we don’t know, we run the risk of allowing this dominant discourse of blame to have some strength.
In so doing, we may inadvertently legitimate the punitive measures implemented by governments to assess and control Disabled people. We may feed into sick people’s own narratives of self-hate and despair.
No. There are many things we cannot say with certainty. Faced with suffering, silence is often the best response. But there is one thing we must repeat, over and over again until it is believed: it is not your fault.
It is not your fault.
I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Parashat Tazria, Saturday 6th April 2019.
 cf Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism
 Lev 13:3-7
 Lev 13:45-46
 Lev 14:7
 Num 12
 cf Solomon Shechter, Studies in Judaism
 Shabbat 32a
 Shabbat 32b-33b