Joel Cohen
Joel Cohen

Should belief in God require one to risk death?

Last week, the press reported that, in apparent defiance of the Vatican, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans has instructed their parishioners to avoid Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccine as “morally compromised.” The US Conference of Catholic Bishops expresses moral concern, while acknowledging that “being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.” The basis for New Orleans Archdiocese position is that the vaccine contained links to cells derived from aborted fetal tissue. Johnson & Johnson disputes the claim. Whether it is true or not isn’t particularly pertinent here.

More than 500,000 are dead in America. No herd immunity. None in the offing. And yet religious belief, or at least a tenet as construed by the leadership of the particular religious regime, essentially instructs its membership to effectively risk potential death, or at least serious illness, by abstaining from a vaccination that could save lives. Would the Archdiocese’s instruction be the same if all three vaccines, not only J&J’s, were linked to aborted fetal tissue? Who knows?

Horrified by the prospect, I turned to my (Modern Orthodox) rabbi for guidance in Judaism. I asked, “What if all three vaccines contain pork extract?” He was unequivocal. The requirement of saving a life is paramount (pikuach nefesh).  He even anticipated my follow-up question which would have presented the issue more starkly: “What if it weren’t about a vaccine? What if the remedy for COVID was orally ingestible and contains pork?” “Halacha [he said] permits eating treif in order to save a life. End of story!”

I guess hardliners might say that it would have to be imminent or certain death. COVID? Maybe not, especially for a young or hearty individual. Probably opinions on both sides of the issue. You know, there’s always a rabbi or either side. Some, as we know, actually lead their communities to believe that there’s no need to wear a mask!  Shocking.

Still, I decided to take the issue up a notch. What if it weren’t about ingesting a food substance. What if one was an enemy combatant captured by a theistic society’s soldiers that insisted, with drawn guns to his head, that he bows to a genuine idol (e.g., Baal), not merely a false flag “idol” such as a TV set or icon of their religion? What then — free to bow down notwithstanding the Second Commandment?

Not so fast, he essentially responded. Saving life in those circumstances, presumably, would not be imperative. So, basically, if I am ever faced with the certainty of death if I refuse to bow down to an idol, ball game for me. I wasn’t astonished by his answer; so the Archdiocese didn’t look so bad after all. Maybe we do!

I’ve never been required to bow to an idol. Further, I imagine I could find a more “malleable” rabbi (though he isn’t particularly intractable) — if my captors allowed me that one extra call. That is, assuming I actually would intend to rely on a rabbi’s advice, not my own conscience, if such a moment of truth presented itself to me: Is God, after all, so insecure that he truly wants me to die over this?”

Still, what does it say about Judaism (maybe Orthodox Judaism)  institutionally — even if such a dilemma presenting itself nowadays would be unlikely? Indeed, it seems that Judaism forbids the worship of a god, even if one’s intention is not to worship it; constructing a god for others to worship (but what about Aaron?); reciting or printing God’s name in vain; or simply pretending that God doesn’t exist in order to avoid persecution or certain death at the hands of an enemy. These even if visibly performed with one’s fingers crossed in abnegation of the act. Why isn’t the saving of life in these circumstances paramount?

The Vatican itself, in the instance of the COVID vaccine, declared it “morally acceptable” for Roman Catholics to receive the vaccine despite its purported reliance on used cells from aborted fetuses. The “Congregation For the Doctrine of Faith,” the Vatican’s watchdog office for doctrinal orthodoxy, in allowing the use of the vaccine for Catholics, said something critical. It underscored that abortion remains a “grave sin,” and stressed that the “licit” uses of such vaccines “does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses.” Easily understood.

So while bowing to idols is gravely sinful in Judaism, indeed one of the Ten Commandments, why doesn’t Judaism reach the same conclusion as the Vatican?  Meaning, if one is pressed at the penalty of certain death to bow to an idol, by all means, “save your life.” Still, just remember always, it’s not permissible to bow to an idol. Bow if you must, but only then!

One would think that the New Orleans Archdiocese and US Bishops, and Orthodox Judaism, could both stand to reach a lifesaving accommodation for their respective religions — a saving of life “exception” when the event at issue presents dire, potentially deadly, circumstances. Indeed, such an exception doesn’t and needn’t countenance the prohibited conduct in ordinary times. For Catholics, it’s about abortion. For Jews (maybe Catholics too), it’s about idol worship, or taking God’s name vainly. Maybe both religions, if I dare say so, need rethinking or modernizing when life itself is at stake.

I’m not talking about the almost unimaginable circumstance today where a prominent rabbi is being forced by his captors to bow down to an idol while wearing a kippah — at the penalty of death, in the public square, with cameras focused. Maybe that rabbi, maybe he alone, might need to demonstrate his fealty to God in an ultimate act of spiritual surrender and extreme personal sacrifice (Kiddush Hashem). A teachable moment for the rest of us.

The oneness of God, though, has stood the test of time. The rest of those who believe in God, for me at least, shouldn’t be required to risk death to prove (to whomever) that “I Accept God and He Alone Unambiguously.”

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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