For all those who have been or still are struggling through isolation during the time of COVID-19 it is interesting to note how the Torah conceives of the purpose of quarantine. When it came to leprous infections, the victim was forced into isolation where he or she was to “remain alone” (Leviticus 13:46) for at least seven days (Lev. 13:50) and perhaps an additional seven days (Lev. 13:54). But it is not the period of isolation that is strikingly familiar to us today but the reason.
The Rabbinic explanation for quarantine was punishment for sin. As RaShI, citing the Talmud (Arakhin 16b) explains: “because his slanderous statements separated a man from his wife or a person from his friend, he must be separated from everybody.” The sin in question is slander. Uttering a statement that results in a rift between partners or friends is the operating definition of the sin of slander. The slanderer makes false statements about another that ruins the victim’s reputation, making them anathema to even those closest to him or her. Consequently, the sinner who causes this separation must in turn be punished through separation. Hence, according to the Rabbis, the Torah’s insistence on separation is punitive.
In contrast, the Tosafists offer an alternative explanation; one that is, perhaps, much more relevant to us today. The Tosafists explain that the leprous individual must separate from others because “the disease can spread to the people who are customarily near him.” In other words, the Tosafists favor reading the Torah as a prescription for treatment of a physical contagion rather than a moral failing. For the Tosafists isolation is preventative rather than punitive.
To be sure, there is always a tendency among believers to interpret everything in theological terms. Al-Qaeda, for example, has declared COVID-19 punishment for the sins of humanity. And evangelist Franklin Graham has preached that COVID-19 is punishment for humanity turning its back on God. Indeed, there are legitimate and useful reasons for connecting this scourge to sin. It is a way of conditioning people to conduct themselves ethically and to appreciate that there are consequences for misconduct. And it is a way of affirming that God holds everyone accountable. However, sometimes it is advisable to see things in natural terms rather than in supernatural terms.
The Tosafists do not go so far as to say there is no linkage between human behavior and COVID-19. But they would have us see its treatment as medically necessary and hygienically justified rather than retributive.