How does isolation fit in a Biblical worldview?

I live in California. The governor just ordered a shelter in place because of the coronavirus. What does ancient Jewish wisdom say about what to do about sick people in society?

John M.

Dear John,

While this is not the right venue for us to answer your question comprehensively, we thought that you and others might find  this Biblical thought on illness interesting and perhaps useful

A great deal of the book of Leviticus speaks of illnesses that are often poorly translated into English as leprosy or some other contagion. The repair for these problems involves removing oneself from the camp and being isolated. Many of us can relate more to those verses today than we could just a few weeks ago.

These illnesses were not of a physical, but of a spiritual variety. In the days where the relationship between God and His people was on a heightened level, spiritual flaws drew quick physical responses.

The study of psychosomatic disorders which is when mental or spiritual distress presents as a physical phenomenon on the body is relatively recent but it helps us understand the close bond between our spiritual and our physical beings. The fascinating efficaciousness of placebos again reinforces how closely tied are our bodies and our souls. 

We no longer benefit from that same level of closeness and interaction between the physical and spiritual worlds. Yet, we are nonetheless very aware of holistic medicine which hints at how every part of the body impacts every other part. Today, we (correctly) would never suggest that individual A is ill because of personal sins or individual B is healthy because he is righteous. Yet we do understand that what and how we think does have an effect on our physical well-being.  Optimism and happiness undoubtedly contribute to physical health as well as to speedy recovery.  The Biblical worldview extension of that is that what and how we think and behave affects the health of the world around us as well.

Taking care of the ill and needy is a priority in a Biblical world. So is behaving in ways that protect and improve life for those among whom you live. It is unacceptable to be absorbed only in one’s own life. One of the effects of isolation as described in Leviticus was a renewed appreciation for being part of a community, with all the responsibilities and demands that go along with that privilege. We can hope that today’s virus is reminding us all how fortunate we are to live in a world where we are not alone.

Stay healthy,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

9 thoughts on “How does isolation fit in a Biblical worldview?”

  1. Thanks for the informative thoughts Rabbi Lapin! I feel like Gd has said to our world, enough. You are all GROUNDED!!!
    Wishing you all a good Passover 😊

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Acea–
      The story is told of President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in 1971 asking Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai what he thought were the long term effects of the French Revolution of 1789. His response: “It’s too soon to tell.”
      In my view, it is still a bit too soon to have any reliable sense of why God wants the world to be dealing with coronavirus right now. But one day we (or our children’s children) will understand.

  2. Neweverymoment, Deb:
    Yay, Rabbi and Susan! Just what I needed to hear today. You are doing a lovely job of joining science and spirituality. Unfortunately, I am not a good placebo responder. Too many people—especially medical-type people—regard placebo as a nuisance to be controlled for, when it is actually a blessing: you give a person a harmless sugar pill and it cures whatever is out of line with no unwanted side effects! One might regard it as God operating under an assumed name. There are tons of Scriptural affirmations that work just as well in Judaism as they do in Christianity, as you no doubt know. Isolation balances companionship in the healing process, as it helps us get centered once more on God.
    Have a blessed Seder and a joyous Easter in whatever way you observe it!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you for the good wishes, Deb,
      Susan and I heartily reciprocate.

  3. One weakness of the Christian Weltanschauung as I understand from reading various theologians, is the schizoid polarization of the human being into a) body vs. b) soul; and seldom the twain shall meet. And, if I understand it correctly, while there is both a body and a soul, Judaism emphasizes that the human being was created as a unit, not a dichotomy. Am I right?

    In any case, we are to regard our bodies as gifts from God and therefore to respect them. And with today’s understanding we are to recognize that disease results not from evil vapors or humours, but from invisible microorganisms that ancient people without the advanced technological revelations of Leeuwenhoek, Ehrlich, Pasteur or Salk could not fathom. And we must take the precautions our wisest mentors advise. On a Christian level, we are cautioned to obey our rulers, when the directives of these rulers do not conflict with the Divine directives.

    Yet we must also follow the dictates of common sense. An ardent missionary approached an infamous island off the coast of India, hoping to evangelize its primitive inhabitants, knowing full well that these aborigines historically have hunted down and executed all arriving strangers. He landed, as his hasty, impromptu journal testified, and was indeed (seemingly) cruelly executed. In an audience with the Lord I imagine the poor man hearing: ‘Yes, Sir, I thank you for your dedication in attempting to preach the Gospel. But I also advised my apostles to be as wise as serpents.’ In the same vein, avoid contact with others if such contact holds danger predictable and verified.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear James,
      Indeed, your mention of the sad story of John Chau’s murder at the hands of the natives of North Sentinel Island in 2018 definitely reminds us of the Biblical injunction to look after your body. However, I find the jump from there to obeying “our wisest mentors” a little far. Today, many of those issuing directives are not necessarily wise and seldom deserve the role of mentor. Many of them are venal politicians with their own agendas. Many of the organizations supplying information and advice are government agencies trying to inflate their own prominence in order to secure further increased funding. So I urge great caution when ‘experts’ are cited or when ‘studies reveal…’. I also recommend resisting attempts to generate fear, panic and hysteria. When Dr Emanuel, one of Pres. Obama’s healthcare architects announced that the ‘lockdown could last another 18 months’ he was far from a wise mentor. Anyone with the faintest shred of wisdom would know that the current state of economic stagnation could not possibly be allowed to persist for 18 months and furthermore, his irresponsibility could do no good at all. Let’s rid ourselves of naive faith in leadership. One sad curse is that we tend to get the leaders we deserve. Now that is a frightening thought.

      1. Thank you for your insight. Yes, we are to listen to our leaders guidance, yet our Creator blessed many of us with common sense, as well.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Aaron–
      Thank you for writing, but statements such as ‘there is no scientific basis for….’ usually mean that the speaker has an authoritative background in physics and mathematics. Statements such as “there is no legal basis for…..” usually means that the speaker has an authoritative background in over two hundred years of legal precedents and case history. When you say “there is no Biblical basis for quarantining the sick….” I am interested in how you understand, to pick just one of many similar Biblical rulings: Leviticus 13:46? All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be. (King James) As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp. (NIV) Pretty clear case of sick people being quarantined it seems to me.

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