Don Abramson, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from San Francisco, is a past chair of the American Jewish World Service and a current board member. His support of the Jerusalem AIDS Project is independent of AJWS. If interested in being involved in the Jerusalem AIDS Project’s work, please contact Don at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do we know how to act properly and effectively in facing one of the biggest moral and medical challenges of our times, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, where there is a new infection every six seconds and a death every 15 seconds? Of course, each of us will have a different answer, but, for me, a major part of the answer (and a source of great astonishment to me) is found in the Torah and with Israel. A significant part of the medical answer is found with G-d and Abraham in Bereshit. Rabbi Brad Artson has talked about the theory that kernels of wisdom are embedded in the Torah, waiting for us to discover them in our own day.
Circumcision is one of them, with positive ramifications far beyond the religious significance that we as Jews give it as part of a covenantal relationship with G-d. According to the latest and best research (which is very solid and extensive, although there is still some debate), male circumcision has been proven to be tremendously effective in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, reducing transmission by at least 50 to 60% (and these numbers are likely very conservative) when combined with appropriate education that the procedure does not provide complete protection and time must be given for healing. There is also very strong evidence of reductions in other sexually transmitted diseases and cancers as well. A vaccine so effective would capture the world’s attention and receive a hundred times the acclaim. Yet the relative inattention given to circumcision has resulted in the world’s lack of sense of urgency and relative underinvestment in the best prevention technology currently available.
It intrigued me further to find that, because of the olim from Former Soviet Union states and Ethiopia, who have received 80,000 adult circumcisions, Israel, through the Jerusalem AIDS Project (JAIP, http://www.israaid.org.il/member_page.asp?id=11) financially strapped yet very dedicated non-profit, has the singular experience and expertise to be able to train African medical professionals in performing large-scale adult circumcisions efficiently and effectively. This training is needed to handle the growing massive demand for the procedure by an estimated tens of millions of African men who are becoming aware of circumcision’s medical benefits as a disease prevention technology. Models estimate that three million lives would be saved in the next twenty years if all who wanted to receive circumcision were able to do so. As of yet, international health agencies have been indifferent to the Jerusalem AIDS Project’s willingness to share its unique expertise, apparently for political reasons that involve isolating Israel. This attitude has strengthened my desire to see the JAIP included as much as possible to allow it to do its very significant part.
This week’s Torah portion Re’eh helps in beginning to answer the moral challenge in battling HIV/AIDS. Moses says “Look! I’m putting before you today a blessing and a curse.” Moses is stating that we have a choice and that blessings come with the right decision to follow G-d’s commandments and curses with the wrong one. He then lays out a series of statutes and also commands later that we add nor subtract from them. How do we accomplish this when we address the enormity of HIV/AIDS?
In deciding how we spend our time and energy, we tend to see ourselves at the center of a series of concentric circles or spheres with fewer resources spent the greater the distance, the weaker the relationship, the farther away in time. The more secure we feel within our own spheres, the more we are likely to feel a sense of commandedness toward those further away. This is generally the way it should be.
Yet when something as earth changing and life saving as JAIP’s work with circumcision training is at stake, my hope is that we can be free of typical restraints on our vantage points. Let us view the world as I imagine G-d might, where seeing from a larger perspective also means looking out for those who might be helped by a procedure that promises life. That promise is also the message of Moses in Re’eh.