Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Jewish Anti-Vaxxers, Let’s Talk

As Kol Nidre approaches, I am motivated to discuss the anti-mask, anti-vax movement that is causing countless deaths around the country (and the world) propelled by misinformation, disinformation, and those being purposely misinformed.

There is nothing more Jewish than wearing your mask to protect others from your possible illness, and getting a vaccine to sustain your own health and the health of your future generations.

To ignore health, science, risk, and the words of expertise in medical fields and favor your “own research” is the least Jewish thing one can do.  Jews argue, we study, we read the commentators, we read the Midrash, we read the words of the sages.  It is seemingly rare in this late stage of modern rabbinic Judaism that we hear the words, “I disagree with all of it, and I’m going my own way.”  Jews do not “do their own research.”  We stand upon the backs of the majority and minority opinions of our predecessors, merge that with modernity and science, and make an informed, educated decision as to what to do.  We do not let fear guide us, such as conspiracy theories that this is a government plan for depopulation (which makes even less sense for Israel, as we must ask, “why would Israel wish to raise its hand against its own people and decrease the Jewish population in an increasingly diverse country?”

Not only that, we study who is saying what and what their background is.  For instance, when we hear from the biggest anti-vax “doctors” who are speaking, such as the one who introduces himself as “Dr. Shawn Brooks, PhD, Oxford,” it takes just a tiny bit of looking to see that the “Oxford” he is referring to is Oxford, Ohio, and that his Phd is in education from an online college.  In other words, this person who is telling you the vaccine does not work, has never worked in a hospital nor a research facility.  Another “expert” anti-vaxers like to quote is Dr. Paul Kangas, who graduated from Clayton Medical College in 2010, a non-accredited American distance-learning natural health college based in Alabama (a college that closed in 2010 for lawsuits).  Jews who study know the rabbis and experts they quote, they know the history and expertise of these characters.  Jews are first and foremost scholars, who know better than this.

As for the disease itself, the risks and reality of Covid-19, I think it important to explain thoroughly what our sages had to say about illness and health and how they relate to faith and practice.  The most notable quotation comes from the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 116, which states:

Hagah: Similarly, he should be careful of all things that cause danger, because danger is stricter than transgressions, and one should be more careful with an uncertain danger than with an uncertain issur. They also prohibited to go in a dangerous place, such as under a leaning wall, or alone at night. They also prohibited to drink water from rivers at night or to put one’s mouth on a stream of water and drink, because these matters have a concern of danger. It is the widespread custom not to drink water during the equinox, and the early ones wrote this and it is not to be changed. They also wrote to flee from the city when a plague is in the city, and one should leave at the beginning of the plague and not at the end. And all of these things are because of the danger, and a person who guards his soul will distance himself from them and it is prohibited to rely on a miracle in all of these matters.

While there is a great deal to unpack here, but most importantly is the “hagah” the edit from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, which deals specifically with idea of danger and performing acts to avoid that danger.  The matters of not putting coins in our mouths, protecting ourselves from knives, not getting sweat on our bread, are all well and good, but Isserles sums up what we should truly take away from this passage and what is most essential:

And all of these things are because of the danger, and a person who guards his soul will distance himself from them and it is prohibited to rely on a miracle in all of these matters.

These last words should be what guide us through this new pandemic of the coronavirus: “it is prohibited to rely on a miracle in all of these matters.”  Even the rabbis of old knew that there were some things we could not pray away, and that faith alone would not stop the spread of disease on our hands, or in the air.  Additionally, by stating, “one should leave at the beginning of the plague and not at the end,” Isserles tells us to act now, rather than later.  As we have seen in places such as Washington State, taking action when infection has spread is already too late.  While I don’t intend to take Isserles’ advice literally here, to leave, I do think it practical to protect ourselves and others by acting now.  I’ll add to these words, those from Rabbi Bernard Fox, who speaks to the words of Rav Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 192:3:

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch explains that a person who refrains from consulting a physician and instead relies on Hashem’s intervention is making the implicit assumption that he is a righteous person deserving of a miracle.  Kitzur Shulchan Aruch points out that this is a shockingly haughty attitude.  The Torah distains haughtiness and requires that we conduct ourselves with humility.  Humility demands that we do not regard ourselves as tzadikim – as righteous people deserving of a miracle from Hashem.

We must never be arrogant enough to think that we should not see a doctor, or think that a miracle will save us from the very real scientific dangers of our world.  Let’s go a little farther back and take a look at Mishnah Yoma, chapter 8, which states:

If one is seized with a pathological craving [for food], he is to be fed even with unkosher food, until he recovers. A person who is bitten by a mad dog must not be fed any of the dog’s liver, but Rabbi Matya ben Charash permits it. Moreover, Rabbi Matya ben Charash said, If a person has a sore throat, it is permitted to put medicines into his mouth on the Sabbath, because of possible danger to his life, and whatever threatens to endanger life supersedes [the observance of] the Sabbath.

Again, let’s avoid the preamble about mad dogs and dog’s liver, and look to the teachings of Rabbi Matya ben Charash who invokes the idea of S’fayk N’fashot, that which endangers life or threatens to endanger life.  Observance of Sabbath, indeed observance of any commandment is superseded by the choice to preserve life.  Therefore, if we have the choice of attending a Shabbat service or staying home during this time of pandemic, we should feel no guilt, and understand no violation of halacha by staying home and keeping ourselves and our family’s safe from possible infection.  With the grocery stores emptying and food choices becoming possibly more limited, those who keep the dietary laws should consider suspending kashrut in order to nourish themselves safely in their home.  Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Sabbath, chapter 2) speaks to this Mishnah ruling as well:

Like all the other commandments, Shabbat is overridden by danger to life. Hence we  execute all of the needs of an ill person in mortal danger according to the word of an expert physician in that place on Shabbat. When there is a doubt whether there is a need to profane the Shabbat for him or there is not a need, and likewise if [one] physician said to profane the Shabbat for him but another physician said he does not need [it], we profane the Shabbat. For [even] a doubt about [danger to] life overrides the Shabbat….

There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, one has a well or a pit in his courtyard — — he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.

Once again, the last lines should be what we take from this text: “any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.”  What would be an obstruction that is a danger to life?  One might argue that it is the slow or poor response from government officials, the lack of adequate health care and sick-leave, or the misinformation streaming from our leadership and media outlets.  All of these must be changed if we are to preserve life.  We must remove all obstacles in the way so what we can adequately preserve life in our communities and in the nation.  I should like to end with words from the Talmud, Sanhedrin, 73a:

From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river, or being dragged away by a wild animal, or being attacked by bandits [listin], is obligated to save him? The Torah states: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of another.” The Gemara answers: Yes, it is indeed so that this verse relates to the obligation to save one whose life is in danger.

In response to those who wish to “defy” mask and vaccine mandates, we need only to look at parshat Shmini, wherein we see the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Leviticus 9:22 begins:

Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. 23 Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.And Aaron was silent.

So the main questions from the commentators was “what is alien fire”? According to JPS commentator Baruch Levine, the Hebrew aish zarah “refers to the incense itself…the text does not specify the offense committed by the two young priests; it merely states that they brought an offering that had not been specifically ordained.”

A modern scholar, M. Haran, suggests that “the offense of the two priests lay n using incense brought from outside the sacred area between the altar and the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. It was therefore impure.”

Levine continues that other Midrashic interpretations “play on the verb k-r-v, ‘to draw near, approach,’ reflected in va-yirivu, ‘they brought near, presented,’ in verse 1.”

Additionally, if anyone has read the book of Job, they’ll remember the end, when Job defies the way of the world, feeling he knows better than God. God replies these famous words:

Who is this who darkens counsel,
Speaking without knowledge?
Gird your loins like a man;
I will ask and you will inform Me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy?

It’s a moment of awakening from Job’s arrogance. God says to him, who do you think you are, thinking you know better? In the face of the mysteries of nature and the power of the unknown, God tells Job, speak up, you think you know so much! If only God could speak into the ears of those defying the dangers of the coronavirus, those with the arrogance to think they know better than the doctors, the experts, that somehow this will not affect them.

At the end of the book of Job, he is given his wealth back, and given seven sons and three daughters. Most would read this as a time to celebrate, that his defiance brought him his wealth and status back, but as humans we know better. So what if Job got his wealth back? He had lost everything. So what if he had seven sons and three daughters? Anyone will tell you that new children do not replace the dead ones. Job had lost his children, mourned their deaths; they cannot be replaced. Nor can any of those who have died from COVID-19 be replaced.

And what about the idea of “individual freedom?” Do we not still hear the words of our Talmud, Bava Kama 46a, which teaches:

Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a vicious dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text [Deuteronomy 24:8], “You shall bring not blood upon your house.”

In other words, individual freedoms, whether to own a vicious dog, an unsecured gun, to refuse to vaccinate or wear a protective mask, cease when those freedoms will inflict direct, preventable harm on another.  Among those protesting regulations meant to safeguard us all, we have seen too many signs that read, “My freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.”  No, it doesn’t, but in Judaism, your freedom DOES end when danger to me begins.  And that, dear friends, is the balance we must find between American values and Jewish values.

We do, and should, enjoy and celebrate the individual freedoms we have in this country, and have enjoyed for centuries.  And while other Americans may believe that those freedoms go unrestricted, even when they endanger their neighbors, we as Jews cannot afford to know that kind of apathy towards our fellow.  On the contrary, we know that if there is a risk that we will endanger, or possibly cause the death of another, we cannot go forward.  As Pirkei Avot tells us, “For if one destroys one soul it is as if one destroys an entire world,” or as our Midrash earlier told us, one who says “Why should I trouble myself for the community?” is one who destroys an entire world.  And, in Judaism, nothing is worth the risk of destroying an entire world.

So, Jewish anti-vaxers, read back on all of this and make your case as to why you shouldn’t get vaccinated, why you should think you know better than the experts, why you should trust the “expertise” of those with fake medical degrees that post videos, and why you believe your health does not affect anyone else.  I look forward to the arguments, but more than that, I look forward to all of you changing your mind after Yom Kippur and beginning this year with a vaccination, and a mask.

About the Author
Ordained rabbi and social justice advocate with extensive experience serving congregations and leading large-scale community change. Published author who concentrates on bringing deep Jewish understanding to the lay public. Doctoral student with a focus on how Jewish philosophy can drive social justice work in the United States. Passionate Jewish educator using innovative teaching methods to reach unaffiliated Jews. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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