Is it a Jewish imperative to get vaccinated?

By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb

Now that all adults in South Africa are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, debates are raging in our Jewish communities as they are in so many other religious communities, government bodies and institutions of learning — do we require vaccination of those who want to physically gather in our shuls and communal spaces?

Is this a question of inclusion and exclusion? Or is there a Jewish imperative to get vaccinated and encourage others to do the same?

At Temple Israel, with the ability to offer all our services and events on-line in addition to in-person, we are committed to ensuring that everyone is, and will continue to be able to participate through a multi-access approach (online, if not in-person). At the same time, we struggle with the above questions, wanting to be welcoming to all AND wanting to keep one another safe.

Although this feels like a current issue, as Jews, we have the luxury and benefit of 3000 years of wisdom that we can consult and rely upon for guidance. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, in Canada, writes that, “while in Judaism there may be new answers, there are few new questions… we have seen so much of this before.” He references the rabbis in the Holocaust who were posed questions about how to safeguard Jewish life and tradition, who turned to similar questions asked during Talmudic times, who turned to precedents of moments of grave Jewish peril that occurred in biblical times. “Backwards or forwards through Jewish history,” he writes, “the verse from Ecclesiastes always rings true, Ein kol chadash tachat hashemesh, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Obviously, vaccines were not available in the age of the Mishnah and Talmud, but questions around the preservation of one’s own life, the life of the community and the level of risk permissible in that pursuit were certainly considered and discussed in our sacred and rabbinic texts.

Both then and now, many Jews and other people of faith see God’s will in all that happens, whether good or bad. And yet, most of these also seek out medicine and medical interventions for their ailments, aches and pains. Rabbi Moskovitz phrases the conflict in this way, “How it is possible theologically and philosophically to engage a doctor whose job is to heal, while at the same time believing that the sickness is caused by divine decree?”

The answer to this seeming paradox can be found right in the text of Torah (Ex. 21:18–19), in a passage about two people who quarrel and one hits another with a stone or fist, where the victim does not die but is confined to bed. In such a case, “the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.” The Rabbis of the Talmud (in Baba Kama: 85A) understood that this meant medical treatment or intervention was to be sought out, and derived from this permission for a doctor to heal a patient, regardless of whether or not the illness or injury was understood to be a result of God’s will. Rashi also explained that here the Torah is emphasizing that acts of healing are not to be understood as going against God’s will. In fact, it is considered a mitzvah (commandment) to heal.

If we follow Rashi’s conclusion that healing is a Jewish obligation, how do we then confront the question: Are Jews obligated to get vaccinated? An answer in the affirmative might seem obvious, and yet, as Rabbi Moskovitz rightly acknowledges, “vaccinations are not medical treatments that cure illness, they are by definition medicines that prevent illness.” In which case it is fair to ask, ‘Can or should we risk getting sick by getting vaccinated?’

Rabbi Moskovitz shares that in 1785, Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo Nansich published a small pamphlet entitled Aleh Terufah, about the tragic loss of two of his children to smallpox, ‘beseeching the rabbis of his generation to allow inoculation’. This was considered controversial at the time, ‘as never in the history of mankind had one taken a healthy individual and injected him with the very cause of an illness, even if the objective was to prevent a more severe disease’. This new treatment thus posed a dilemma: The Torah allows for a physician to heal, but does it give him license to bestow illness upon the healthy, even in order to protect or to cure? The Rabbis of that time debated the issues. They were well-aware of the risks of vaccination, and yet the majority argued in favour of it. In their opinion, the benefits clearly exceeded the risks.

These rabbis based their argument not only on the urgency of the pandemic, but also on Talmudic precedent, citing the teaching that, ‘danger is more serious than a prohibition.’ (Chulin: 10A). In other words, Jewish ethical tradition obliges us to distance ourselves from danger and to prevent it when possible.

The Rambam who in addition to being a renowned scholar, worked as a doctor in the royal palace in Egypt, explained this teaching through the commandment of placing a railing on high places: ‘where someone might trip over and die, [one] is obliged to place a barrier or cover it… And any obstacle that is dangerous to life, it is a positive commandment to remove it and stay safe …’ (Laws of the Murderer, Chapter 11, Law 14) Through this teaching, the Rambam is ultimately saying, ‘Look after yourself and protect one another’.

By this logic, protecting ourselves from illness and epidemics falls under the same obligation to protect ourselves from danger as the obligation to install a railing on a roof or cover a hole that someone might fall into. There is thus, clearly, a Jewish imperative built on the teachings of Jewish law, ethics, and tradition: we ARE obligated to get vaccinated, and we should be encouraging others to do the same.

One day, please God, we will be able to gather and fill our shuls without such worries, precautions and difficult decisions being necessary. In the meantime, let us continue to practice pikuach nefesh, the Jewish value of saving a life above all else; and to follow the teaching that kol yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each of us is responsible for the other.

Temple Israel

• Published in the PDF edition of the November 2021 issue – Click here to get it.

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