Sometimes, reading only the Facebook headline (seemingly a common occurrence, as evidenced by the comments) can be both misleading and even dangerous. This was made evident by a recent Haaretz post (12/20/20) entitled, “Concern among Muslims, Orthodox Jews over pork-derived gelatin in COVID-19 Vaccine.” (It is interesting to note that the actual article reached by the link does not include “Orthodox Jews” in the headline.) The Facebook headline implies that Muslim and Jewish authorities may not support the use of various COVID vaccines. Yet, when the article is actually read, at least half of the headline is proved untrue. While the article asserts that the use of pork gelatin may be problematic for Orthodox Jews and Muslims, this is only demonstrated in the case of Islam, where religious authorities are quoted on both sides of the question.
On the other hand, the only Jewish authority quoted actually states just the opposite. “According to the Jewish law, the prohibition on eating pork or using pork is only forbidden when it’s a natural way of eating it [and is therefore unproblematic for a vaccine].” The headline provided by Haaretz to Facebook is therefore intentionally sensational and duplicitous and may lead less knowledgeable traditional Jews (and Muslims) to believe that the vaccine is religiously forbidden.
Traditional rabbinic texts from antiquity to the present recognize the importance of pikuach nefesh (saving life) as a paramount Jewish concern. Indeed, all but three mitzvot (murder, idolatry, and incest) can be broken to save another life, and consuming pork products and other non-kosher substances is undoubtedly among these three. Indeed, while the rabbinic authority quoted in the text states that injection does not qualify as eating, the Mishnah itself makes it explicitly clear that it is permissible to eat pork and other religiously forbidden foods to save a life.
The Jewish tradition has a long history of support for vaccination, beginning at least in the 18th century. Religious authorities in the 1780s embraced the use of the smallpox vaccine, even with the inherent possibility of mortality from the vaccine (at that time 1 in a thousand, a mortality rate which would be extremely unacceptable in modern medical practice). Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (1772-1811) famously required every baby to be vaccinated against smallpox. This injunction has been generalized among Bratzlav Hassidim to more recent vaccinations. This embrace of preventative vaccination has been embraced by religious authorities in all streams of Jewish life, from the CCAR (Reform) to the Agudath Israel (American-Haredi).
Vaccination (along with social separation and masks) as an aspect of pikuach nefesh moves well beyond preventative medicine to a sense of responsibility to safeguard others’ health. Medical science suggests that vaccinated herd immunity for COVID requires that at least 70% of the population receive a vaccine. Without a vaccine herd immunity, a similar percentage would need to be infected with COVID in nine months (in the USA, around 850,000 cases a day), leading to more than 2.3 million deaths in the USA alone. Jewish sources are unanimous, requiring that action must be taken when the lives of others are threatened. Indeed, The Rambam states, “Anyone who is able to save a life and fails to do so, violates, ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.’” He adds, “All Israel are commanded to take life-saving action.” Until the vaccine is widely available, masks and social separation allow us to begin to fulfill this injunction, and with general availability the vaccine will enable us to defeat COVID and effectively protect ourselves and other people.