He who saves a single life is like one who has saved the whole world. (The Talmud, Sanhedrin 37A)
Is there any hope to end this worldwide pandemic associated with the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus?
The answer to this question is well-known, at least among the scientific and medical communities, as well as most educated people in this world: vaccinations!
Vaccinations are among the great medical advances of the last century. They have cured many diseases, including polio, measles, mumps, rubella, tuberculosis and others. They are among the great successes of science in contemporary history.
Not only that, there are enough vaccines available in the world to vaccinate everyone, if only world-wide distribution would be done properly. In other words, we have within our reach the possibility to end this pandemic!
So, why isn’t it happening? Why are so many people resisting the opportunity to not only protect themselves, but to protect the health of the public, and thus to end this pandemic?
The answers to these questions are not clear, at least not to me. Frankly, I don’t get it. I especially don’t get all this bunk about “freedom of speech” and “personal autonomy” when it comes to preserving life.
Would these same people, who make these arguments about not getting vaccinated for the corona pandemic, say the same thing if I ask them to fasten the seatbelts of their children when they are on the highway? Would they tell me that their children need freedom of movement? Or, would they tell me that their personal autonomy should allow them to have a few drinks before they get in their car with their family for a long drive?
I especially don’t understand Jews who are anti-vaxxers. At least not those Jews who live in the modern world, in which, Thank God, we have made amazing medical advances, that save lives, including the recent research that has brought us the medical miracle of a vaccine for the current virus ravaging the world.
I was asked by a colleague a few months ago, if he could give a “religious exemption” for one of his congregants, who requested this, from getting the vaccine for the corona virus, since his place of work was mandating it. So, I checked with one the most respected Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg , who is the rabbi of the community of Har Adar outside of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (where I am a “library fellow”). This is what he told me:
Halachically [according to Jewish Law], it is obligatory to get vaccinated against corona. Only in cases where doctors advise a patient not to get vaccinated for a health reason should it be avoided. This is how all the poskim [authorities in Jewish Law] ruled.
When I asked him to clarify and elaborate on this brief answer, this is what he said:
Already over 100 years ago, many rabbis ruled that it is essential to get vaccinated against various diseases and plagues. All of the poskim that I know have ruled recently that it is obligatory to be vaccinated for the corona virus. The obligation falls on the individual vis a vis himself or herself, since it is forbidden for someone to put himself in a health situation which would endanger his life. It is also obligatory to not risk the lives of others. Furthermore, it is also essential to obey the instructions of the medical authorities, in the case of Israel, this means the Ministry of Health.
I appreciated this response very much and I have shared it with my colleagues.
One of the central values of Judaism is the sanctity of human life. We are taught by the rabbis of the Talmud: “The commandments were given to live by, not to die by.” Acts that endanger health—and are matters of life and death—are not Jewishly ethical.
We are now facing a critical time with regard to mitigating the deleterious effects of this worldwide pandemic. Just like the issue of climate change, in order for us to be effective, we need everyone to get on board. There is no more room in a sane, compassionate, responsible world for anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers. They not only endanger their own health, but the health of everyone.
While I am on the subject of the ethics of vaccinations, I would like to raise one more issue: the ethics of the global distribution of the vaccine. This is a very serious issue, which is largely ignored by Western nations which are mostly caring about their own citizens, since those are the people who need to re-elect them.
Why is this issue important and what is being done about it?
To get a good answer to this, I asked my friend Harris Gleckman — who was a staff member of the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, and has been dealing with this issue during the last two years as a Senior Fellow of the Center on Governance and Sustainability, UMass-Boston — to respond. This is what he told me:
The world at any time has a finite quantity of COVID vaccines. The quantity of available vaccines is determined by the handful of companies that operate vaccine factories. These manufacturers are primarily interested in the income they can generate from the sale of ‘their’ vaccine. The more vaccines sold in the northern hemisphere then the less that are available for free or discounted distribution in the Global South. This is not only an equity concern about the global prevention of COVID but also an aggravation of extreme failures of health care systems around the world.
As we are approaching the holiday of Hannukah—and not long after it, the festival of Christmas—perhaps we will be witness to some miracles once again. We already have the medical miracle of the vaccine. Now we need a miracle of a change in consciousness. The anti-vaxxers need to wake up! With the help of the Divine Spirit, and the partnership of human beings around the world, we can emerge from this pandemic. But we need everyone to abide by basic principles of ethics and mutual responsibility.
Whoever saves a life it is as though he has saved all humankind. (Quran 5:32)