There are still a lot of people who have not been vaccinated against covid and it is not surprising that the rabbis have been considering the implications of vaccination since the time of the Talmud. How do you prevent disease? The later opinion of Maimonides is the one often quoted, and the sage said that even if nine people had not taken precautions and survived, the tenth should still take every precaution possible.
The success of vaccination has been undeniable. Smallpox used to kill 400,000 people a year before Jenner discovered the vaccine in 1796. In 1980 smallpox was declared eradicated. The measles vaccine has reduced the incidence of the disease by 99%. When judging the covid vaccine, it has been estimated that the flu vaccine is only 60% effective but the Pfizer covid vaccine is 94% effective.
The rabbis have produced Responsa on the subject for centuries. One of the key laws in the Talmud is Pikuah Nefesh which states that almost any law can be broken if it saves life. The only exceptions are those concerning idol worship, incest and bloodshed. One father in Victorian times was arrested for refusing to vaccinate his son. The opinion of the Chief Rabbi was sought. Hermann Adler said that it was within the din to vaccinate. Chief Rabbi Mirvis has said it is a religious imperative to get vaccinated.
The law also says that the opinions of Doctors must be followed. There was a hiccup when 12 doctors wrote in The Lancet that vaccination could cause autism. Some years later they changed their minds when the lead researcher was found to have falsified his results. There is no evidence it causes autism.
It is still said by those against vaccination that it is dangerous. The din is that the danger of not taking precautions is more serious. Again, the argument is that the Almighty will provide a miracle to protect the non-vaccinated, but the din is that “a miracle doesn’t happen every day and it is forbidden to rely on a miracle.” Indeed those who refuse vaccination “deserve lashes of retribution.” The din also says that those who are not vaccinated should not be allowed into a Synagogue, school or shopping mall.
The Rabbinical Assembly, the Association of Conservative Rabbis in America, has voted unanimously in favour of vaccination, pointing out that wearing masks, physical distancing and washing hands are obligated by the Halachah. They aren’t just recommended; they are obligated.
At the other end of the religious scale is the late Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Schneerson who said that vaccination was a mitzvah to protect your health. A mitzvah isn’t an option; it’s a law. Rabbi Zalman Auerbach, another famous Hasidic rabbi, said that if the only time you could be vaccinated was on the Sabbath, that was permissible as well
Nevertheless there are demonstrations against vaccination and the World Health Organisation has said that resistance to it is number one on the list of global health threats. Forty per cent of the French do not trust vaccination. In Israel and the United States there have been demonstrations against it. There was a positive war of street posters in Israel advocating vaccination and condemning it. The din is the din though.
Many civilisations have believed that illness is the penalty of the gods and that nothing could be done about it. That has not been the Jewish view, and the attempt to cure illness has been an integral part of the philosophy of the din. There are a large number of laws concerning health. Indeed it is said “you have to be more careful in cases where danger is involved than in those which involve a mere matter of ritual.”
Of course anybody can be unlucky. Ninety four out of a hundred is pretty good odds but it doesn’t make a certainty. But then some people unhappily get knocked down crossing roads. That doesn’t mean we are going to stay on a pavement for the rest of our lives.
Will there be another wave this winter? Who knows, but if I get offered a booster jab, I’m going to get in the queue. A number of my family have recovered from covid but I’d rather not take a chance.