Our synagogue leadership has recently had multiple conversations about COVID protocols, and you will have noticed that only vaccinated people have been invited to join us for in-person HHD services. I’d like to explain why this is important. As always I’m happy to meet and talk with anyone who has questions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is, in fact, a plague, no less than the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. In 1918, with no respirators, no antiviral drugs nor steroids nor antibiotics, 675,000 Americans died.
In the current COVID-19 pandemic, with modern technology, respirators, ICU care, steroids, antivirals, and antibiotics, 611,791 Americans have died so far.
The Jewish response to health care has always, from time immemorial, been focused on the best medical expertise available at the time. We do not ever sit and wait for miracles. We thank the Holy One regularly for the gift of human knowledge, that we might make the world better for all people. Our earliest laws tell us that the well-being of our entire community is a core value of Judaism.
Every major Jewish denomination has made a clear statement on vaccines. They are required ethically for Jews. There is extensive Halacha on this topic, as well as important thinking by our great modern scholars.
Here are the most important Rabbinical statements, issued by the Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements, on vaccines and vaccine requirements:
“Agudath Israel of America” submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1996, arguing that: “Society has the right to compel citizens to submit to vaccination… [and] to insist that a child receive life-sustaining treatment even over the religiously motivated opposition of his parents” (Prouser, p. 15).
The Conservative posek, Rabbi Elliott Dorf (U.S., born 1943) wrote in his book on Judaism’s approach to medical ethics in 1998 (Dorf, p. 253) that “it would be a violation of Jewish law… for a Jew to refuse to be inoculated against a disease, at least where the inoculation has a proven track record of effectiveness. Jews, on the contrary, have a positive duty to have themselves and their children inoculated against all diseases where that preventive measure is effective and available”.
The Reform posek Rabbi Mark Washofsky (U.S., born 1952) ruled in an official ruling of the Responsa Committee of the CCAR in 1999 that immunization is “proven” medicine [in the words of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden quoted above], and is, therefore “part and parcel of the traditional obligation to practice and to avail ourselves of medical treatment”; Jewish tradition would not object to compulsory immunization; and “a congregation is entitled… to adopt a rule that requires immunization of students before their admission to religious school” (Washofsky, p. 115).
All of these rulings apply to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is not different.
So many of our Jewish ethical views on vaccines originate with the introduction of the smallpox vaccine. People had never heard of such a thing and were terrified. But one in thirteen people died of smallpox before the vaccine. We knew that our tradition taught that medicine and science were how the knowledge of the universe was brought into the world by human intelligence. And so, our communities knew that vaccination was the right thing to do, the Jewish thing to do.
We must protect our most vulnerable people, small children, and the immunocompromised. How can any of us think of their perilous position and refuse to be vaccinated? It is selfishness, pure and simple.
When we gather together, we must always hold as most holy the lives of humans. Because of this we will mask and distance, and follow up to date building protocol, even if it feels annoying or silly. Even if we don’t feel like it. And every one of us who is physically able should be fully vaccinated, l’ma’an haShamayim, for the sake of heaven.