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Health: A Public Issue

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, DHL

April 16, 2021

This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, plunges for three long biblical chapters into public health. The biblical health authorities, the Priests, were charged with inspecting outbreaks of apparently contagious dermatological illnesses. Often erroneously translated as “leprosy,” they constitute various skin lesions and fungi in humans, fabrics (including animal skins), and the stone walls of houses.

Often the terror of b’nai mitzvah students unfortunate enough to be assigned these portions, the Torah explicitly describes sores, pus, abrasions, burns and other discomfitures. Ancient priests got the task of examining human body parts, male and female, whose irregular appearance might threaten public health. The community demanded that those deemed afflicted isolate themselves outside “the camp,” because, due to no fault of their own, their disease might threaten lives.

The Bible, the Holy Writ, Scripture, the Word of God, demands that those who place the entire community at risk leave the community. They are banished, as Shakespeare’s Romeo was banished, comparing life without Juliet to death. Banishment from a life sustaining community threatens the victim, and yet, it’s an absolute necessity for the sake of the greater good. If no person’s blood is redder than any others, then everyone is equal, and the threat must be removed even when, as in biblical skin diseases, “it’s not his fault.” Fault is not the issue. The threat is the issue, and it must be dealt with regardless of the cost or individual rights of the threat's source.

According to CNN, the U.S. has suffered at least 45 mass shootings in the last month. More than one a day. 147 mass shootings in 2021.

Congress has just restarted funding to investigate patterns of gun violence. As Gayle Stolberg reported in the NYTimes on April 2:

“There’s at least five different gun violence problems in the country and mass shooting is one of them,” said Mr. Morral, who has a Ph.D. in psychology. “There’s also suicide, there’s urban gun violence which mostly affects minority young men, there’s family shootings and there’s police shootings. And they all have different risk factors, they all have very different motives and they often involve different firearms.”

Like cancer, there is no single cure for the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. If politicians want to make a difference, experts say, lawmakers need to quit the fruitless fights over whether liberals want to take people’s guns away and start financing — and listening to — research that could inform policies that could address the carnage.

“Address the carnage.” That’s the biblical leprosy problem. The Priests were appointed by the Torah to do what they could to reduce the mortality of their people, even banishing the afflicted to limit the spread.

For decades the gun problem has been the “Second Amendment right to gun ownership,” versus the “right to life without fear of gun violence.” But we nearly all agree that “there’s a fungus among us,” and our own Priests, Congress and State Legislators, must be responsible.

Clearly, the solution is no longer banning guns. There are millions already out there. Neither can we remain silent and do nothing, not only because our own lives are threatened, but because the impact and lasting effect of gun violence causes damage daily to our children, our frightened communities, our minority populations, and our entire way of life. If this were once tolerable, it no longer is.

What to do? Current research indicates there are potential solutions to this plague.

The existing research suggests that one policy under consideration in Congress — expanding background checks — could make a difference. RAND has found “moderately good evidence that the current background checks system is helpful” in reducing violent crime, Mr. Morral said, and so “it seems logical to think that background checks on all sales might help more.”

There is also moderately good evidence, RAND found, that waiting periods for gun purchases reduce both suicide and violent crime. And there is strong — or what RAND calls “supportive” — evidence that laws requiring guns to be safely stored away from children reduce firearm injuries and deaths among young people. (NYTimes, Stolberg)

Ancient Israel understood that potentially fatal problems demand solutions, and that the threat must be removed. Americans can own guns, and we can still protect lives by expanding background checks for every sale, instituting waiting periods for gun purchases, and safe storage of guns. The public good overrides all other private considerations. Death threats cannot be tolerated. The public must come together. As the Torah teaches elsewhere: “Therefore choose life, that you and your children will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Shabbat shalom.


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