What does the Torah say about HIV and AIDS? Is there a Jewish response to HIV/AIDS? What are the Jewish beliefs about HIV prevention and treatment? And what about political issues such as abstinence-only education in schools, and federally funded needle exchange programs? Is there a Jewish way to respond to these political issues? What guidance does my religious tradition, Reform Judaism, offer?
These were the kinds of thoughts rattling around in my mind throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s. I had started to experience the losses of friends, mostly gay men whom I knew through my music circles. Then I lost a dear mentor and teacher just six weeks after he told people that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. That was the catalyst that pushed me toward graduate school and changing my career path to work in HIV prevention.
My rabbi at that time invited me to attend a meeting with her, a formative meeting to consider whether there was interest to form some kind of city-wide Jewish community group to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ultimately, the St. Louis Jewish Task Force on AIDS was formed. My rabbi served as chairperson for a few years, and later I became the first lay leader to serve as chairperson. We tackled issues like burial practices for the Jewish funeral homes and cemeteries, we encouraged congregations to march in the annual fundraising walk, and we hosted a range of educational forums.
During this time I enrolled in graduate school, and started working on my thesis. Ultimately my thesis work formed the basis for a multi-session curriculum in HIV prevention education that was specifically directed to the Jewish community, and I pilot tested it in several St. Louis congregations. I created a text study using texts from the Torah (also known as the Old Testament), Talmud (a collection of Jewish oral history), and other sacred writings. The curriculum included opportunities for parents and teens to go through the program together, learning the same information in separate classrooms for kids and adults. The program culminated in service projects that families did together, including home meal delivery to people living with HIV, and visiting with the residents of an extended care facility that specifically served people living with HIV. Learning the same material meant that families could have discussions at home about what they were learning, with everyone on equal footing. They were learning the vocabulary of sexual health, how to talk about sex and prevention as normative human behaviors and not something to get squeamish or prudish about.
I remember speaking to a class of 7th graders at their religious school one Saturday morning, kids about 12 or 13 years old. Their rabbi was in attendance, sitting in the back of the room. This was something I required; kids needed to know that it was OK to have these conversations with their clergy, and that the synagogue was a safe place to discuss sexual health. I told the class to be sure to stop me if there were words I used that they didn’t understand, or if they had any questions. And sure enough, not 10 minutes into my presentation, the first hand went up. “What’s oral sex?” The first part of my brain thought, oh, that’s so sweet that you’re naïve and don’t know. The next part of my brain thought, oh, you’re going to go home and tell your parents you learned about oral sex at religious school! And meanwhile, the rabbi in the back of the room was looking at me wide-eyed with an expression that said, “This is all on you; don’t expect me to help you here!”
So I looked at the student and answered, “Oral sex means that you use your mouth to give someone sexual pleasure.” The student looked back at me, and said, “Oh, that makes sense. Thanks.” The rabbi looked stunned – was it really that simple?
It is, and it continues to be. Together, students and parents learned about the Jewish values of saving a life (and sometimes you have to save your own life); of all Jews being responsible for each other, often known as “I am my brother’s keeper”; of visiting the sick without concern for the cause of their sickness; and the idea that all human beings are created in the image of the Holy One and are therefore equally sacred, combatting stigma head-on. We learned about passages of the Torah that could be applied to contemporary situations, like the lessons about leper colonies that had to be separated from the rest of the community, and how that kind of stigma continues in our own time. We learned about our forefather Jacob and his two wives, his two concubines, their use of mandrakes as an aphrodisiac, and the births of 13 children: clearly there was some unprotected sex happening back then! Giving people the opportunity to learn and grow, to ask questions in a safe place knowing that they will not be shamed for their naivete, continues to be the work that moves and inspires me.
In recent years, and following my move to Seattle, this same kind of work has expanded to my involvement in the Jewish community around the legalization of gay marriage, and working to make Jewish congregations inclusive for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It turns out that Judaism has a lot to say on those issues too!
One of my favorite quotes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that doesn’t often get heard is posted on the bulletin board in my office: “Science gives man knowledge, which is power. Religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” And one of our Jewish sages, Rabbi Tarfon, is quoted in the Talmud, “The day is short, the task is great…You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” These words from great men of faith continue to inspire me every day, and have helped me connect the dots between my faith tradition and my work, and just how important it is that the two work hand in hand.
Gail Broder is the Associate Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Community Engagement for the HVTN.