Rabbi Alex Freedman
The Jewish tradition overflows with important and worthwhile debates. But when our turn arrives in 2021 to get the Covid vaccine, the tradition is clear: it’s a Mitzvah to get vaccinated to protect the lives of ourselves and others. Hillel and Shammai would agree to that.
Two Shabbat mornings ago, Rabbi Schwab and I had a conversation on the Bimah in lieu of one of us delivering the sermon. “Vaccination in Jewish Law” was not a debate because the Jewish sources support only one side. We shared the key points from a Teshuva (legal responsum) about this exact question written this year by Rabbi David Golinkin, the renowned Conservative scholar in Jerusalem. (You can read it here: https://schechter.edu/does-halakhah-require-vaccination).
Rabbi Golinkin rules: “In conclusion, since the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796 it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that vaccines against infectious diseases save the lives of millions of people every year, with almost zero percent harmed by the vaccines. Therefore, there is a halakhic [legal] obligation for Jews to vaccinate themselves and their children, unless their doctors determine that it’s dangerous for that specific person to be vaccinated due to a pre-existing condition.”
Rabbi Golinkin lists the copious sources that prioritize taking care of our health. For example, the Talmud famously says, “Whoever saves one life is considered to have saved the whole world” (Sanhedrin 37a). Remember that receiving the vaccine protects not only us but many others around us.
Next, the Teshuva raises possible Jewish objections to vaccines, and then convincingly rejects them. For instance, an idea exists that “G-d will protect me.” This conviction is not a statement of faith, but rather the opposite of what the Talmud teaches. As Rabbi Yannai ruled: “A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they will perform a miracle for him, lest they do not perform a miracle for him” (Shabbat 32a). Although we Jews celebrate miracles when they do happen (think of Hanukkah), we should not expect them to happen. Rather, we are to do everything we can to minimize dangers to ourselves. The medical experts say vaccines are a simple way – and the best way – to do exactly that. (Unless an individual has certain pre-existing conditions).
Rabbi Schwab and I then discussed the question: Why do you think it’s important for rabbis to talk about this, when it’s a medical issue and we are not doctors? Here is my answer: I do speak with some medical expertise because my mother wanted me to be a doctor!
In all seriousness, our health is a Jewish issue too because the Jewish legal sources prioritize it extensively. Getting this vaccine is so important that Rabbi Schwab and I want our congregation to know that our tradition and rabbis unwaveringly support it.
We Jews love to say “L’Chayim! To life!” Getting the vaccine is how we actualize this in 2021.
(Vaccine registration is now open for Lake County residents – https://allvax.lakecohealth.org/s/?language=en_US)
Happy new year! May 2021 be a year of health for us and the whole world.