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Beyond chapter and verse: Job: the aids victim
“ There is contempt for misfortune in the thought of those who are at ease ” Job 12:5
Here is Job. Job the leper. Struck by an implacable disease that is devouring skin, flesh and blood; he is pursued, struck down even in his posterity. And if that were not enough, behold he is rejected by his friends and abandoned by his nearest and dearest: "I am repulsive to my wife... all my intimate friends abhor me..." (19:17-19). As the last straw we see him morally destitute, pointed out by his companions as responsible for his own ills; his misfortune has become the most obvious sign of his guilt. Of what is he guilty? It does not really matter, the point is that the image of misfortune, great misfortune, coincides with that of evil. Moreover, this is what his friends cast up in his face:
"Is not your wickedness great?
There is no end to your iniquities" (22:5)
How could they have thought anything else? Job had leprosy, the misfortune par excellence in the Bible, although it seldom looks at the illness with a professional eye. The same question is always found there, more or less openly addressed to the sick person; the same question that the Babylonian doctor had already put to his patient "What have you done wrong?" The leper is ritually impure, socially isolated, separated from his family, banished to the outskirts of the camp or the town, and under obligation to offer a sacrifice of expiation. This role of pariah belongs to Job, transcribed perhaps, and we see the lengths to which his friends will go in order to find him guilty. The leper is made responsible for his own rejection by society because there is the firm idea (and the rea son for this is not under consideration at the moment that he has endangered the very idea of sociability Both the Bible and Rabbinic Literature connect sin with the origin of leprosy. According to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 20:1,2,4) tf the serpent is the first creature to undergo the punishment of leprosy it is because it "spread abroad calumnies about its Creator". This attitude was destined to sow mortal discord between God and Adam and to leave the field wide open for the serpent with regard to the woman, after whom he lusted when he had seen her in the arms of Adam. The serpent succeeds in making trouble between the man and God on the one hand and the man and the woman on the other. Leprosy, then, seems to be a form of murder, with lust as its spring-board. Lust has many forms in the ensemble of texts that make up the tradition, but its primordial nature seems to be sexual.
Job says to his companions "You see my calamity and are afraid" (6:21). We all prefer to find a reason for suffering rather than to put suffering on trial, in fact to justify it and so be free to initiate the trial of the one who suffers:
"He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty (6:14) but they "like God pursue him" (19:22)
The friends of Job provide us with a key to understand this attitude towards a sick person:
"How then can man be righteous before God? Behold, even the moon is not bright... how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!" (25:4-6)
Faced with death, we inevitably plead guilty. You could almost say we make ourselves guilty, because in reality this is a stratagem for exorcism. If, as the Bible affirms in its first words on humankind, death is brought about by sin, then death can perhaps be conquered by redemption. Thus to plead guilty is to affirm that the angel of death is himself mortal. In this way the extraordinary myth of the destruction of death is constructed on the ruins of innocence. Job denounces this vision pitilessly; he repeats as a sort of refrain: better to die than to renounce my claim to innocence.
I hold fast my righteousness
and will not let it go! (27:6)
That it would please God to crush me,
that he would let loose his hand and cut me off! This would be my consolation;
I would even exult in pain unsparing;
for I have not denied the words of the Holy One (6:9-10)
Confronted with the myth of guilt which feeds this other myth about the end of the mortal condition, Job sets against it not only his unshakable belief in his own innocence, but also the stupidity of this attempt to impute guilt:
What is man, that thou does make so much of him... test him at every moment..
If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? (7:17-20)
That such a voice could make itself heard amidst the concert of the biblical texts demonstrates, if there is need, the lucidity and depth of the attitude taken by the Bible with regard to the problem of evil. Manoeuvering between the myth of Adam's sin and the radical justification of Job, the Bible wants to explore further the phantasm linked with the idea of death.
A Sacred Disease
With the advent of AIDS, this phantasm has returned in full force today. As one is able to pick up from the press, AIDS has given back to sickness a meaning it has not had since the end of the great epidemics. In an atmosphere tainted by worry and disbelief, almost apocalyptic fears reappear which incorporate fantastic curses, divine punishments and accusations of guilt. The inexorable nature of this illness, the fact that its propagation brings into play such powerful and emotionally charged elements as blood and sex, the fact that it primarily touches marginalized populations already branded, that it bears witness to a grave powerlessness on the part of medicine; all goes to explain why this sort of archaic 'magma' is regurgitated, welling up from the very depths of ourselves. Ravaging black Africa AIDS only lacks a Jewish element to concentrate within itself all the centuries' old fears of the West. In the final count it does not really matter that the idea of sexual or social immorality is no longer the pertinent criterion for understanding the present spread of the disease. The important thing is this; thanks to AIDS, death seems to penalise sex and our imagination once more sees sickness as the strong arm of God; AIDS has become a sacred disease.
In reality, the AIDS phantasm is cast in the mould of the medieval leper which has been left vacant in our imagination since the disappearance of the great epidemics and the triumphal progress of experimental medicine. For it was the leper who acted as catalyst for this kind of phantasy syndrome, incorporating fear of blood, sex and death. In the past lepers were reputed to be attracted by blood; this belief found its culmination in the great plague of 1321, when lepers were accused of having (at the instigation of the Jews) poisoned the wells by throwing into them herbs mixed with human blood. But the prime interest in the medieval leper was still based on sex; for leprosy was considered a venereal disease in the Middle Ages, to such an extent that Job became the patron saint of syphilitics. This confusion was long-lived; in 1914 Dr. Zambaco Pacha, an honoured member of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, still upheld the theses in his Voyages chez les Lepreux (Masson). Thus "sexual promiscuity', as it is called today, was held largely responsible for the spread of leprosy. This was proposed in all seriousness by a learned historian at the end of the nineteenth century: "Leprosy was introduced into Spain by a courtesan who granted her favours to a leprous knight for the price of fifty gold ecus... she in her turn infected all the young men who went with her... some of them followed King Charles into Italy and carried the cruel disease with them." For the same Dr. Zambaco Pacha leprosy was not propagated only through sexual commerce but quite simply through commerce, from the fact that merchants in their travels often brought back leprosy in their merchandise; (this is tied in with the thesis, brought up again recently, that leprosy came from the Jews, but that is another story). The solution flows from the source: lepers must be isolated, these "living-dead" as they were often called, to prevent them having the slightest contact with the outside world. In fact lepers were shut up in leprosariums on the outskirts of the towns. Dr. Bachelot has invented nothing new with his isolation hospitals for AIDS sufferers.
It would be fruitless, of course, to deny the existence of serious problems posed by the possibility of AIDS' epidemics. But we must mistrust ourselves. While it remains unconquered, understanding this malady can never be a simple task, entangled as it is in a whole network of phantasms which well up from the depths of history and from our very nature. Such
mythical representations are already present in the Bible, although it maintains its distance from them by formulating them in terms of the doctrines of guilt and salvation. It is this formulation which made possible the criticism levelled by Job. It is the greatness of the Bible and often of Judaism to have known how to keep myths on a lead. Undoubtedly we must learn to follow in these footsteps, even if perhaps we give less weight to this confrontation with death which is both new and dramatic for people living today.
* This articlefirst appeared in L'Arche Le Mensuel du Judaisme Francais, October 1988, M 377. It has been translated from the French and is published here with the kind permission of LArche.