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Zionism and Leprosy

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-04-23

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

As we approach another Yom HaAtsmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, it may seem to many of us that huge swathes of world opinion so demonise both Israel and the Jews in the same breath that one almost begins to feel like a leper in certain circles.

Some argue we always have been marginalized to some degree or other by almost everyone else for at least the past two thousand years or so. This week we read in the Torah about leprosy and I’d like to make a connection but not in the obvious way.

We Jews cannot agree on very much. Religiously we are a mess of contradictions and conflicts and the same goes for Zionism. Most of the founding fathers of the modern Zionist movement were ideologically opposed to religion. Some were assimilated like Herzl who at once wanted all Jews to convert to Catholicism in Vienna Cathedral. Others were Marxists brought up on the notion that religion was the opiate of the masses. For many of them Zionism was the antidote to Judaism. It is hardly surprising that they tried their best to block any role for religion in the new State. This is why you can find a lot of religious Jews both within Israel and without who have a problem with  ‘Zionism’.

On the other hand I can understand ‘Nationalism,’ Nationalism means that one wants a homeland. Its creation as a political ideology in the nineteenth century proved disastrous for Europe and now it is proving divisive and destructive for the world in general. But if this is the currency of world political aspirations I see no logic in allowing nationalism to some but denying it to others. Which is precisely what so called anti Zionists want to do.

Jewish Nationalism makes sense to me. But what has Zionism to offer that I did not already have? I can want to take positive human steps to achieve the goal rather than sit back and wait for King David. But that does not necessitate a new word in the Hebrew lexicon. What about those thousands and thousands of Jews over the years since the Exile who had gone to live in Israel under terribly harsh and difficult conditions? Did they have to be called Zionists?

Amongst the religious today you will find those who serve in the army and those who do not, those who contribute massively to the State in economic terms and those who benefit, those who care about Judaism and those who do not, those who want to cede land for peace and those who will oppose any concessions.

Many secular Israelis don’t seem to give a damn, either about Zionism or Judaism and want to get to New York or California as quickly as possible and marry out (those who may be Jewish). Yet in the Diaspora it is probably true to say virtually all Jews support Israel in one way or another even when they violently disagree with internal policies and politics. In this, the Muslims  are right. Jews do indeed care about Israel just as Muslims seem, on occasion, to care about Arab states (though there is as famous Arab witticism that goes ‘I hate my brother but my brother and I hate our cousin.’).

The truth is that Jews are connected to each other in various and strange and often contradictory ways. These connections may be religious or economic or social and sometimes there is fierce internal competition and even hatred. But as always it takes an external threat to paper over the cracks. And it has to be said, many Jews, including myself, often have closer associations on certain issues with other non-Jews than we have with many of our co-religionists.


The connection with leprosy is this. Judaism in general (there are exceptions) does not follow the Platonic, Aristotelian view that the body is bad, dirty, and secondary to the pure intellect or spirit. Body and Mind both come from God, are neutral and can be used or abused. It is up to us to do a good job. On the other hand in our modern society we are conditioned to think of the body as ‘good’ and we grow up with such clichés as ‘If it feels right it must be good.’ Physicality is everything. Plastic surgery determines more than inner goodness.

Leprosy tells us that there are things that come from our body that we must distance ourselves from. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or bad or impure about excreta. It comes from us. But we learn to distance ourselves from it. Sickness is not necessarily our fault. But when it happens we may need to be withdrawn from others.

The association of leprosy with gossip (which the rabbis made) also underlines how much harm and danger can come from within, even from people we think are friends. The biblical laws of purity and impurity do not have anything to do with what is dirty. So many misunderstand and think, say, a woman during here period is somehow dirty and must be avoided because she contaminates. The bible means nothing of the sort. The problem lies with non-Jewish translators who didn’t understand the Torah. But of course there are diseases can make our bodies dangerous to others. It’s no ones fault and after recovery we return to ‘normal.’ Neither bodies nor minds are  automatically good or bad. Both need sanctifying.

Without doubt there are people within Judaism and Israel who repel others, whether it is other Jews or non-Jews. Some of my readers hold views diametrically opposed and antagonistic to others. I get clobbered one way or another. Some of these antagonisms we can deal with and we should. But there are some diseases that others have and the only way we can respond is by keeping away and trying to ensure we don’t get contaminated. I refer to those who do not understand that all of humanity is created in the Image of God, those who do not care whether Judaism survives or not and those who do not care if we have a land of our own or not. These were the ideals of our biblical prophets and if we cannot maintain them we do not deserve to survive.

Shabbat Shalom