Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Vaccine mandates— the time is now

All Republicans should be shot—the unvaccinated ones, that is.

So should everyone of whatever political or religious persuasion who is as yet unvaccinated, and especially the adamant anti-vaxxers, including a sizeable contingent of ritually rigid Jews.

I prefer having them shot with either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines, but Johnson & Johnson will do just fine.

They—and all of the rest of us—also should be wearing masks when we are in enclosed public spaces. In fact, mask-wearing and vaccine-taking should not be an option. Both have to be mandated, albeit within constitutional limits. As Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said, “The time has come…. I believe mandates at the local level need to be done.”

The federal government, of course, is constitutionally barred from treading on states’ rights, and that includes imposing nationwide mandates. There are some actions it can take, however. It can decide that only vaccinated people may be issued passports. It could bar the unvaccinated from interstate travel on planes and trains. It could bar private contractors from receiving federal contracts. It can impose tax penalties on the unvaccinated. It even can withhold some federal funds from states that refuse to impose such mandates.

Only the states may impose such mandates, but that seems unlikely given the callous disregard for human life exhibited by such Republican governors as Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’ Greg Abbott.

Politicians may lie, but numbers do not. On August 11, for example, there were 144,635 new covid-19 cases nationwide, with Florida and Texas alone accounting for about 30 percent of that total. Because their actions undermine efforts to contain the pandemic, I believe both governors should be held criminally liable for any covid-related deaths in their states.

Bizarrely, DeSantis and his staff cavalierly downplay the number of covid-19 deaths in Florida. His press secretary actually boasted in a tweet that the state “had one covid death” on a day when 47 people had died there. Despite the fact that Florida is setting daily records for new covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, DeSantis not only ignores its dangers, he is bullying administrators who refuse to ignore them, such as by threatening to withhold the salaries of school officials who impose mask requirements on students and teachers in defiance of his orders. He showed no signs of relenting last week, after news that two elementary school teachers and a teaching assistant—all of whom were unvaccinated—died within 24 hours of each other in Broward County, just days before schools were to open.

In Texas, which has been averaging nearly 12,500 covid-19 cases per day this month, and which has seen hospitalizations soaring to heights not seen since February, “Abbott’s pandemic playbook…[is] largely focused on blocking local mandates and…protecting the rights of the unvaccinated,” as the Texas Tribune recently put it.

In July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for “universal indoor masking by all students,” but Abbott carried out his vow to sue any government official who preferred to follow that advice. The Texas Supreme Court backed him last Friday. Earlier this week, Abbott, despite being fully vaccinated, tested positive for covid-19. As of this writing, he nevertheless shows no sign of backing down.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) last week introduced legislation that would roll back mask mandates at the federal level and would prohibit vaccine mandates. That neither bill has any chance of passing is not the point. They are empowering the unvaccinated at a time when the perniciousness of the Delta variant has only intensified the pandemic, as the numbers testify. Between August 3 and August 10, when their bills were introduced, the average number of new daily cases in the United States was the highest since February, up 86 percent from just two weeks earlier.

Potentially more deadly variants, such as Lambda, as waiting in the wings. The Delta variant is bad enough. It carries 1,000 times more virus than the original covid strain and is more contagious even than the common cold. The Lambda variant, however, may pose an even greater threat. One recent Japanese study awaiting peer review found three mutations in Lambda that could make it at least somewhat resistant to the current vaccines. A U.S. researcher, meanwhile, has identified two other mutations that could make Lambda even more contagious than Delta.

The advice every responsible health professional offers is the same: Everyone should get fully vaccinated, wear masks in indoor public spaces, maintain social distancing, and avoid large social gatherings. Some also urge people not to travel internationally.

The evidence is there for all to see. The overwhelming majority of new infections is occurring among the roughly 93 million unvaccinated people nationwide. Most of the unvaccinated are Republicans, most of whom refuse to wear masks and many of whom insist they will never get vaccinated. They prefer to follow the lead of DeSantis, Abbott, Cruz, and Cramer rather than the belated urgings of such leading GOPers as Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

A Monmouth University Poll released in early August confirms this partisan divide, as all earlier polls have done. “Among those who admit they will not get the vaccine if they can avoid it,” the poll found, “70 percent either identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, while just six percent align with the Democrats.”

That same partisan divide pertains to reinstituting covid-19 restrictions, the poll showed. Interestingly, the poll was taken before the CDC issued its latest stricter recommendations. Whereas 85 percent of Democrats support reimposing restrictions, 73 percent of Republicans are opposed, as are 55 percent of Independents.

If people wish to risk contracting covid-19, that is their right. The rest of us, however, have the right to be protected against the unvaccinated spreading covid-19. For all of us to be relatively safe from this killer pandemic requires herd immunity. According to the infectious disease expert Dr. Samuel Scarpino, that “means 80 percent to 85 percent” of people in the United States being fully vaccinated. With roughly 25 percent of Americans, according to every survey, saying they will refuse to be vaccinated, we will not even get close to those numbers without the imposition of vaccine mandates.

The politics of covid-19 have exasperated Dr. Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project and is director of the National Institutes of Health. “We’re incredibly polarized about politics,” he said recently. “We don’t really need to be polarized about a virus that’s killing people.”

All Americans should be required to be vaccinated, especially those entrenched in the anti-vaxxer camp. Those who refuse should suffer fines and tax penalties, and even be denied certain jobs, among other consequences. If a covid-19 outbreak is traced to an unvaccinated individual, he or she should be federally prosecuted for violating the civil rights of others.

As I see it, Jewish law agrees.

To be sure, from the Torah on, based on Deuteronomy 24:10, halacha supports an individual’s right to privacy, but within limits. Thus, based on Deuteronomy 22:8, the “law of the parapet,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch allowed “local civil authorities to intervene to have anything at all which might be dangerous removed” from a person’s premises. (See his commentary on the verse.) By extension, this would allow government to require vaccinations.

The Torah also insists on quarantining people with potentially infectious diseases until such time as the danger has passed. (See Leviticus 13.) By extension, this would at least require strict quarantine for the unvaccinated until they relent.

As I have mentioned often in my columns, there is virtually no Jewish law, including Shabbat and kashrut, that is not waived where danger to life is even suspected. (See, for example, the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 83a.)

As for the anti-vaxxers in some ritually rigid Jewish communities—including at least eight prominent charedi rabbis quoted in a new brochure titled “The Covid Injection Uncensored” and several others quoted on an affiliated website—they either have been misled or they, too, are criminally negligent.

Most Orthodox authorities of all stripes were horrified during the measles outbreak in 2019 at what was going on in those communities. “[I]nfecting other people is totally unacceptable,” said Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, Inc., in 2019.

Infecting other people is no less acceptable this time around. As I noted in past columns about the pandemic, Rabbi Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, the leader of the Karlin-Stolin chasidic sect in Israel, condemned those who show “contempt for the lives of others” by refusing to follow covid-19 guidelines, including mask-wearing and vaccinations.

“For God’s sake,” he said in a taped message, “we cannot bend any of the rules, under any circumstances. This is not child’s play, it’s life and death and the essence of Jewish law.”

“Can it be,” he wondered, “that some [people] have forgotten the simple laws of pikuach nefesh [danger to life], which is the basis of Judaism…? [We] must do it [wear masks and be vaccinated]. This is the will of God and we should be happy for the opportunity we’ve been given to protect human life.”

Stay safe. Wear masks in enclosed public spaces. Avoid large indoor gatherings. Get vaccinated.

Ignore the likes of DeSantis, Abbott, Cruz, and Cramer. Listen to God, instead. Be happy for the opportunity God gave us to protect human life.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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