The biblical response to contagion: Self-quarantine voluntarily, even if you personally have nothing to gain from doing so, for the good of the community.
Since the COVID-19 epidemic has reached the United States, I have been thinking about the book of Leviticus as I read news stories and scroll Facebook. As we engage in a national conversation about slowing down the spread of the virus with continuing debates about how strict our self-quarantining should be, I can’t help but think about how relevant Leviticus is to our national and local conversations.
Let me begin with a disclaimer. The issues that we face in the age of COVID-19 and the issues that were of concern to the biblical priests are radically different, but the dynamics and solutions to the concerns are remarkably similar. Levitical impurity and COVID-19 are similar in one fascinating aspect — both pose a greater threat to the well-being of the community than to the health of any single individual. This is a crucial point to understand. According to the Levitical priests, tum’ah/ritual impurity was a human condition that was relatively benign for the individual carrying the contagion, but was a very serious danger for the community. Similarly, today we are facing a situation in which COVID-19 may be relatively benign for most individuals who carry the virus, but very dangerous to our communal well-being and the stability of all aspects of our society. The Levitical system for the mitigation of impurity can teach us a great deal about the mitigation of COVID-19.
Leviticus concerns itself with ritual purity and impurity, which are ideological constructs that served a particular theological worldview. The sources of ritual impurity were not primarily connected to disease or illness or real physical contagion. For example, a person could become ritually impure after contact with a corpse, genital emissions, childbirth and certain skin conditions. Ritual impurity was only a threat to God, who the priests believed could not reside within an impure environment. In the priestly worldview, ritual impurity was contagious but not dangerous for individuals who carried it. The ritual impurity was a threat to the well-being of the entire community since too much impurity would drive God away.
Leviticus prescribes those with ritual impurities to limit some of their more public interactions to wait until the condition had dissipated, and to wash and launder. Other people who came into contact with the impure individual had to wash their bodies and launder their clothing. Objects that were contaminated by the ritual impurity had to be disposed of or washed. Sound familiar?
It is important to note that there was no system of enforcement. The priestly leadership served to set the guidelines, and the priests had the training to determine whether a person or object was in a state of purity or impurity. Someone with a genital discharge could easily keep the matter secret. An individual who came in contact with a corpse could keep that fact private. A family that detected probable mold in their house did not need to report it. Since there was no organization for enforcement, individual participation could not have been rooted in fear of punishment. Moreover, in the Levitical worldview, God was not a punishing, vengeful God so compliance could not have been rooted in fear of Divine retribution. The Levitical system for containing ritual impurities depended completely on the willingness of each member of the community to take responsibility for their own impurities.
The system in Leviticus is based on the assumption that every member of the community would comply with self-quarantining, bathing and laundering because the welfare of the community as a whole depended on maximal participation. In a world without enforcement or fear of Divine punishment, what would drive an individual to smash precious pottery that could not be cleaned, to limit contact with others, to be more diligent about bathing and laundering? Perhaps what lies behind the priestly assumption of compliance is a higher, more complex system of moral reasoning that is driven by a shared ideal: maintaining the Divine presence within the community. I believe the work of Carol Gilligan helps to elucidate the situation. According to Gilligan, there is a “caring perspective” of moral development that is rooted in relationships and caring instead of just logic and justice. In Leviticus, the priests exercise the power to set the rules; however, this works only if the community acts collectively for its own good. Leviticus presents a model that includes no intermediaries — people are responsible for their own actions, and those who neglect to take the appropriate actions necessary bring harm to the entire community.
Consider the world in which we currently live. Today’s priests are doctors and scientists who provide guidelines for the community to limit the spread of disease. With proper materials, they can determine whether someone is positive or negative for the coronavirus. So far, public health authorities are not able or willing to enforce compliance with their guidelines. So we must depend, as our biblical ancestors did, on the will of each member of society to make the right choices — to understand that bad decisions are harmful to the integrity and well-being of our society. Leviticus provides a model in which each individual chooses to participate in the guidelines for the good of the community over the comfort of the individual. The majority of our current population may not be in imminent risk of death or very serious health consequences; but it is in everyone’s interest to make decisions that will keep the basic building blocks of our society stable. We are in a crisis, and we have a wise biblical perspective to help guide us. Self-quarantine, keep physical distances, wash and cleanse not because it benefits you, but because it benefits us.
Tamar Kamionkowski is professor of Biblical Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she served as dean and academic vice president of the college for nine years. She earned a B.A. from Oberlin College, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. She is the author of Leviticus: A Wisdom Commentary; Gender Reversal and Cosmic Chaos: A Study on the Book of Ezekiel; and editor of Bodies, Embodiment and Theology of the Hebrew Bible.