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Shabbat Vayeytze

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-12-05

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Jacob runs away from Esau and arrives at his uncle Laban's house. There in the famous story, he thinks he is spending the night with his love Rachel but in fact it is with her sister Leah. In this day and age the danger of being misled would be quite different. What if the woman he slept with had AIDS?

We have had a lot of publicity this week, what with UN declared AIDS day and a well-publicized concert in South Africa. But I wonder, is the publicity that AIDS get warranted? We hear a range of views, that it is a symptom of our society's decadence, a punishment from God for sinful humans, a symbol of human selfish pursuit of pleasure.

Every generation seems to think it is unique. But the world has always been divided between the epicureans and the stoics, those who praise indulgence and those who argue for restraint.

Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek culture of Socrates and Aristotle was spread by the political success of Alexander the Great. Traditional religions found themselves fighting to survive. Only those which rose creatively to the challenge survived, amongst them Judaism.

Two thousand years ago the great Roman Empire was challenged by monotheism. Rome represented the materialism and decadence of this world. Monotheism stood for restraint, spirituality and otherworldly values. The religious argued that the sexually corrupt Romans were heading for disaster.

A thousand years ago Christianity in Europe was divided between the ascetic, inward looking monastic orders and the more worldly courts of the popes.

Spanish Jewry was split between the rationalists and the mystics. This was the reason that in time led to some Jews burning the philosophical writings of Moses Maimonides on the grounds that philosophy was essentially antithetic to religious belief. And another split emerged between those in Spain who welcomed other cultures and 'convivencia' living together on good terms with other religions, and those who thought that an internally directed focus on religious intensity was the response to the challenges that Christianity and Islam presented.

In Spain Jews had risen to international prominence as diplomats and governors. Others had become great poets as well as religious scholars. They combined Jewish learning with a familiarity with other languages and cultures and mastered them all. The Chassidei Ashkenaz, the Pious men of Northern France and Germany on the other hand adapted many monastic and social traditions to Judaism and evolved a stricter, disciplined and other-wordly approach. They thought the corrupt Jews of Spain were heading for disaster and religious extinction. Their influence is still felt in orthodoxy and if anything has come to dominate.

The enlightenment five hundred years later also led to a clash between 'enlightened' liberal, sexually 'liberated' societies on the one hand and religiously motivated more puritanical ones on the other.

The differences we see in our society today are not at all new. And this clash is best illustrated over the issue of AIDS. The secular world believes in free choice and the right of individuals to pursue their own sexual lives regardless of the consequences. The function of education, as they see it, is to teach how to prevent getting infected rather than to encourage a change in life style. The religious world, officially, believes in restraint, self-control and avoiding situations that can lead
to disastrous consequences.

It is argued that AIDS is a self-inflicted disease and a result of and punishment for the sexually dissolute. The fact that initially it came to the public's attention as a disease common amongst homosexuals helped give rise to this idea. But over time it has become clear that people have contracted the disease through blood transfusions, prostitution and rape.

The disease has spread amongst perfectly blameless heterosexuals. And this in itself has raised the issue as to whether an innocent homosexual, infected by another, can in any way be blamed for bringing the disease upon himself.

Initially the disease attracted immense interest and support in Western societies precisely because homosexuality was so prevalent in the worlds of entertainment the media, high profile publicity sophisticated societies. As a result AIDS was seen as a Western, rich, homosexual problem that attracted far more financial support than, say, malaria which kills many more human beings around the world annually but is a poor man's disease.

Africa has been decimated by AIDS. In South Africa the years of apartheid successfully demolished tribal controls and disciplines and substituted no
positive values in their place. Dislocated, migrant communities were naturally more open to promiscuity. Initially an African response was that only self control and discipline would help avert the problem. This drew on traditional African tribal and Christian and Muslim attitudes. Those Governments that took responsibility, like Uganda, soon succeeded in stemming the tide. Their approach was a mixture of education as well as encouraging religious values of self control.

South Africa in particular was slow to go down this path. The political pressure of Western activists was allied to an anti capitalist theme that accused the rich countries of making the anti AIDS drugs too expensive for poor Africans. The tradition of blaming everyone else was the convenient fall back position. But it is true that it led to such pressure on the Western drug makers that slowly more and more cheaper drugs are being made available.

I am not for one moment suggesting that cheap drugs should not be made available or that any measures to stop suffering and disease are not to be applauded and encouraged. But I do believe that if positive values of restraint and self control are not developed simultaneously it will be in vain.

The concerts organized in support of Aids are themselves culturally programmed to encouraging promiscuity. They are selling the disease as well as the cure. Pop artists whose music, lyrics and example all encourage sexual freedom are happy to gain cheap publicity by giving time to AIDS concerts. But they fail to make the connection between what they stand for and the problem itself. If that same energy went into something more constructive I think I'd feel less cynical about their performances.

I am not for the rigid, kill joy approach of the old ascetics. God's pleasures are there to be legitimately enjoyed. But I do believe that some old fashioned religious values have a lot to commend them and are an important mechanism for people to protect themselves from having their lives ruined by unprincipled, amoral others.

Shabbat Shalom