No, you’re the idolater! Keeping calm amid Covid, vaccinations, and Healthism

I think he was accusing me of idolatry.

“What a sad sad situation when our hope is built on a small needle,” someone wrote in response to my recent piece about the joy (and other feelings) I experienced when I got my first Covid shot.

“Hope?!?!,” I wanted to snap back at him. “You’re the one who’s placed your hope in false idols! I’m not worshipping the needle the nurse put in my arm, but it sounds like maybe you’re worshipping your anti-science ideas.”

Happily, I was able to ‘count to ten’ and refrain from actually getting into a pointless social media fight. But our exchange was a reminder of just how (sadly) polarized we’ve become in an age of Covid with its masks and vaccinations, along with the arguments about whether they should be required. Health has become intensely political.

Leading scholars of Jewish law from the Conservative/Masorti Movement — both in Israel and in the United States — have issued forceful opinions ruling that vaccinations can be required by Jewish institutions like schools. 

These opinions are deeply rooted in both Jewish law and in science, so I was glad to see that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had unanimously approved the American one on the first of the year. But, still, something bothered me to see it opening with the words, “The Torah commands us.”

“The Torah commands us.” “The Bible says.” 

We hear simplistic phrases like this so much. They speak to my ear of a kind of fundamentalism — a black-or-white sense that the only two options are all right or all wrong — that has infected both our political and our religious discourses. 

The Torah verse cited here is from Devarim 4:9 — “be careful and watch yourselves.” 

It’s a verse that is certainly appropriate to the issue (and is also cited in the Israeli opinion by Rabbi David Golinkin). But as Rabbi Minna Bromberg (my wife and the founder of Fat Torah) pointed out to me, this verse is often used in troubling ways. 

From a quick Google search, I found it also being used to open a response to another question — this time about why one should begin each day with “a morning drink of lemon juice and cayenne pepper”. 

Now I don’t have any problem with a person choosing to start each day with some lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Maybe it really does help the writer in the ways she suggests: By promoting “general cleansing and detoxification. It also aids digestion and suppresses cravings. This way I start my morning in a good way, without overeating.”

But it does trouble me when you start linking a specific eating practice with a Torah verse. Is ‘not overeating’ really what God wants our first intention to be about in the morning? Is there not perhaps some idolatry here — building one’s hope on a small drink, to paraphrase the man I quoted to begin this piece? 

Idolatry, of course, isn’t a word people use much these days, but I think it’s a very useful concept for thinking about what spiritually ails our society, especially in our materialism and near worship of success and health. I like the definition of idolatry as the ‘mistaking of the part for the whole’ — that is, the act of taking a small part of what makes life good (like personal fitness or financial success) and making it the be-all-and-end-all of everything you pursue and value. 

A word we can use to describe this kind of idolatry when it comes to personal health is healthism. As Minna Bromberg writes, healthism was originally coined by economist Robert Crawford in his 1980 article ‘Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life’ . It is defined there “as ‘the preoccupation with personal health as a primary –often the primary– focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of life styles, with or without therapeutic help.’” In a Bustle post, healthism is described “as the dark side of healthy living. It’s an attitude or way of thinking about health as a moral good or imperative.” If health is a moral good, that implies that people have health challenges only because they are defective or have moral failings. The potential idolatry here is to view the act of deprivation — through diets or juice cleanses, etc. — as being the center of one’s relationship with the Holy.

I certainly don’t see that kind of idolatry in the American vaccination teshuvah’s opening by citing “be careful and watch yourselves.” But I don’t see that choice as being a good way to encourage people to have deep, nuanced views of difficult vital questions — like this one — that, literally, weigh issues of life and death. Fundamentalist, black-and-white thinking is part of what makes today’s society so polarized. We need to try and dial down the temperature a bit if we’re really going to learn to live in true peace with one another. Even when someone is sticking a needle in our arm.

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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