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When Orthodox Jews ‘disagree’ with the scientific consensus

That '2 Jews, 3 opinions' claim is real: Judaism prizes argument - for the very existence of dissenting voices prove the rule, and the unanimous decision is suspect
Doctors in agreement. (iStock)
Doctors in agreement. (iStock)

Too often, religious Jews follow Jewish law while ignoring values that emerge from Jewish law. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated this in new and distressing ways.

The talmudic Rav Kahana asserted (Sanhedrin 17a) that a defendant in a capital case who was convicted with the unanimous assent of the court is not put to death. This is also established as the normative halacha (Rambam Hilchot Sanhedrin 9:1, as explained by Aruch HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 18:7). Commentators explain this seemingly strange law in different ways. However, one common thread, indicated by the Gemara itself, is that a unanimous verdict is an indication that there has not been sufficient debate, and the proceedings were likely flawed, if not corrupt.

On the other hand, the court is instructed to follow the majority as long as dissenting opinions are not altogether lacking. In this case, the majority serves as the determinant, and the fact that the decision was not unanimous indicates that the proceedings progressed honestly and fairly. Moreover, the majority in this case refers to the learned members of the court — that is, experts in jurisprudence. The vox populi, the majority of uneducated laypersons, is not relevant when determining truth.

Extending this halachic principle to other areas, we can assert that it is correct to follow the majority of expert opinion, as long as there is sufficient reason to believe that the experts researched the issue honestly. If, in the process of deliberation, not one expert disagreed with a newly minted idea, we can assume that the process was likely flawed or corrupted. But when the vast majority of experts accept new scientific findings, the fact that individual experts reject those findings is actually a reason to trust that the process was just, open, and fair.

With the vast majority of medical and scientific experts recommending that individuals take the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available, it is mind-boggling that some religious Jews continue to question whether these experts are correct. It has become commonplace for many Orthodox Jews to “disagree” with the scientific consensus, either by choosing to follow a daat yachid (extreme minority viewpoint), or — even worse — by forgoing the scientific consensus altogether, in favor of non-expert opinion.

This is more than intellectual arrogance; it is a violation of halachic values. If religious Jews accept the principle that a court’s decisions must follow the majority, and that the existence of dissent is evidence of fair play in the deliberations, why do many of them refuse to employ that same principle when it comes to the vast majority of doctors and scientists who are staunch supporters of vaccination for COVID-19? Why do these Orthodox Jews, who allow Jewish law to govern every aspect of everyday life, ignore fundamental halachic principles when they relate to the supreme concept of pikuach nefesh, the saving of their lives and those of others? (Admittedly, the normal “laws of majority” are suspended in the case of pikuach nefesh — but that suspension is in place to allow the breaking of Jewish law to try to save a life (or preserve health), even when the chances of true danger to one’s life are slim. That exception is irrelevant in the case of the COVID vaccine.)

The larger Orthodox community, with which I proudly identify, has no business implementing halacha while utterly ignoring the world view and values that must inform the world outside of the four cubits of the Law. The fact that this occurs with regularity is yet another indication that the Orthodox Jewish world needs a reckoning.

About the Author
Rabbi Scott Kahn is the director of Jewish Coffee House (www.jewishcoffeehouse.com) and the host of several podcasts, including Orthodox Conundrum, Intimate Judaism, and Baseball Rabbi.
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