Alan Abrams

A spiritual war over vaccines? The Conservative/Masorti movement takes a stand

As January began, leading scholars of the Conservative/Masorti movement passed bold rulings in support of vaccinating against Covid-19. There is an “obligation for Jews to vaccinate themselves and their children,” wrote Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin in a ruling, or teshuva, that was approved unanimously by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on January 5. 

The only exception to the obligation is if “doctors determine that it’s dangerous for that specific person to be vaccinated due to a pre-existing condition,” Golinkin wrote. He said specifically that a parent’s non-professionally medical fears about the danger of vaccination are not sufficient to warrant an exemption.

The approval now of this Conservative teshuvot is especially significant because it comes at a time when there is significant controversy about vaccinations in some segments of the Jewish community. In a recent public Facebook discussion of the Covid-related death of a 43-year old mother of 8 in Israel, some commentators railed against vaccinations in favor of alternative medicine approaches: “Sadly the agenda is pushing for a vaccine [as the] only solution and pushing away valuable treatment options,” one commenter wrote. “All options for treatment should be on the table — all possible drugs, all possible ‘alternative’ interventions.” 

Another commentator who said she was the next-door neighbor of the deceased expressed skepticism that the death was due to Covid, while another accused hospitals of intentionally overreporting Covid deaths: “We’ve had countless first hand experiences this year of friends and family lose loved ones to NON covid related causes, upon which the hospital, as well as doctors or staff, have INSISTED on labeling the death certificate as COVID.” A deep distrust of the actions and recommendations of the medical establishment seems to be at play here.

In response to skepticism about vaccinations, Golinkin, president of The Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, brought a blizzard of ancient, medieval and modern Jewish legal sources to support his conclusions. He even cited a source that credits the great hasidic leader Reb Nachman of Bratslav as saying that a smallpox inoculation must be set up “for every baby before a quarter of a year, because if not, he’s like a shedder of blood, and even if they live far from the city, he must travel there, even when the cold is great.”

Smallpox, of course, was the first disease where vaccines were developed. Even before Edward Jenner in 1796 developed his vaccine against this terrible disease that claimed the lives of countless children and adults, early scientists had discovered more primitive ways of inoculating people. In a process known as variolation, pus was taken from a smallpox victim’s wound and placed under the skin of a healthy person. The process had a 0.5–2% mortality rate, considerably less than smallpox’s 20–30% percent mortality rate, according to Wikipedia’s smallpox page

Contemporary vaccines like the Covid-19 ones are of course much safer than the primitive technique of using infected pus. The safety and effectiveness of the new vaccines were major issues considered by Golinkin. To be required under Jewish law, he says, treatment must be a “proven medicine” or refuah bedukah/רפואה בדוקה. The high success rates of the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines help them qualify under this standard.

Therefore, both Golinkin’s teshuvah and another one unanimously approved earlier in January and authored by Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, NJ, explicitly say that Jewish schools and institutions can require students, employees and congregants to be vaccinated against Covid-19. However, those institutions must also comply with any governmental regulations that might block them from implementing such a requirement.

The teshuvahs’ conclusions are supported by a variety of basic principles in Jewish law about the sanctity of life and the obligation of individual Jews to preserve both their lives and those of others. These include the principle of pikuah nefesh/פיקוח נפש. This principle requires the preservation of human life over nearly every other religious rule (the exceptions being idol worship, incest, and bloodshed). Writes Golinkin, “if a person is commanded to transgress all the mitzvot in the Torah to save his friend’s life, how much the more so is it a mitzvah is to get vaccinated in order to save his own life! In other words, if pikuah nefesh supersedes Shabbat, kashrut, Yom Kippur, and almost all the mitzvot in the Torah, how much the more so does it supersede the infinitesimal risk” of vaccination.

Leading Orthodox authorities have also ruled positively about Covid-19 vaccination, and Golinkin cites a December 15, 2020 joint ruling of the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America that “the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”

Some other Orthodox authorities, however, have ruled that parents have the right to refuse proven vaccinations for their school children like the measles one. Golinkin quotes one such authority who says that it’s not possible to halachically decide that parents “must vaccinate their children, even though it’s obligatory to try to influence them greatly in order to convince them.”

When even Jewish legal authorities who say we cannot force parents to vaccinate believe that vaccinations are for the good, why do we see the kind of resistance we found in the Facebook discussion I cited above? Something Peltz said in a Zoom presentation this week of both his and Golinkin’s teshuvah may give us some insight. Peltz said he had been told by a leading public health executive that they were looking to vaccinate clergy early, in part because having the example of clergy being vaccinated might help promote vaccination in communities — especially the black community — that historically have had a deep mistrust of medical and government authorities.

Black Americans are not the only ones who have a deep distrust of traditional medical authority — even people in fairly privileged communities have been lied to and exploited by unholy alliances between medical experts and big-time capitalism. What comes to mind especially for me is the decades of recommendations to women that they should not breastfeed their children, a recommendation that turned out not to be based on science but on the desire of baby formula manufacturers to sell more of their product. It should then not be so surprising that people have turned to alternative and non-Western medical approaches — all of which can feel more spiritual.

It will not be easy to restore trust — a trust that allows people to feel they can both be spiritual and follow the science. But such a restoration is essential. As the Golinkin and Peltz tesuvahs so clearly tell us, it is our basic ethical obligation under Jewish law — our spiritual obligation — to do whatever we can to help preserve our lives and the lives of others. That includes getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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