Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Writing off the ‘derech’: Abraham’s blade, vaccine needles, and Dennis Prager 

Dennis Prager wrote, “There is something about most Jews that few non-Jews know: We Jews often ask ourselves if a non-Jew in our lives would hide us in the event of a Nazi-like outbreak.” He’s right. Most Jews I know do ask this question of those around us. But I take it a step further. I wonder what Jews I know would have done to survive.

Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, wrote that only “The worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the ‘grey zone’, the spies. It was not a certain rule… but it was, nevertheless, a rule…The best all died.” Among the ordinary people I know, who are the sort who would do otherwise unthinkable things? So, what about Prager? What would he have done? Based on his public disdain of COVID-19 vaccines, we may hazard a guess.

Prager writes in a Hobbesian font while using the Bible to support his cynicism. Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century British philosopher who feared his atheism would get him executed by theological authorities, had no faith in human beings to be good. Neither does Prager: “religious Jews and Christians know by the age of ten that man is not basically good. They all learned God’s statement about human nature from Genesis 8:21: The inclination of man’s heart is toward evil from his youth.”

Even if there is such an inclination, that doesn’t mean one cannot choose to be helpful. There are lots of good people doing good all the time. For example, Abraham overcame his inclination to murder Isaac. With the knife raised, how long did Abraham look into his son’s eyes? Long enough to see that Isaac’s face did not direct Abraham to lower the blade, but to put it down. The Torah tells us an angel from heaven stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Today that angel may be called Abraham’s moral conscience directing Abraham to let Isaac go create a new tomorrow out of today. Isaac married Rebecca and their children married and had children and on and on until we get to all of us. We here today are God’s kept promise to Abraham and Sarah; they will give birth to many nations. It is because Abraham was helpful that Prager and I are here today. But Prager doesn’t go to the good humans can do as I just did. No, he goes right to Auschwitz.

Arguing against hopeful people like me, he writes that one “reason for Jews’ belief in man’s goodness is the most widely quoted line from The Diary of Anne Frank: ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good at heart.’ (I have always wondered if she continued to hold this belief when she was in the concentration camp.)” Here, Prager avoids how many mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and friends walked and cared for the vulnerable on the way to their slaughter. He ignores those who resisted, like Sophie Scholl and the White Rose or the Danes who saved the Danish Jewish community from the Nazis. He ignores those who bore witness to make a blessing of the murdered, like Primo Levi and Illona Karmel.

But Levi also begs us to not let this happen again. He commands and directs us to choose good in his re-writing of Judaism’s most sacred prayer, the Shema. Perhaps in the spirit of Abraham, he sees we may still elect to put down our murderous blade.

And we all face the Abrahamic choice now. During this pandemic, we too hold the lives of our family in our own hands and have to decide if we are going to spare them or possibly kill them. But instead of a blade that ends life, it is now a needle that saves it.

What should we make of Prager’s anti-vaccination efforts? And his endeavors to actually contract COVID? The Washington Post’s “Morning Mix” had this to say: “On Monday, the 73-year-old host of The Dennis Prager Show told his audience that his plan worked. Prager said he tested positive for the coronavirus last week. ‘I have engaged with strangers, constantly hugging them, taking photos with them knowing that I was making myself very susceptible to getting COVID,’ he said. ‘which is — indeed, as bizarre as it sounded — what I wanted, in the hope I would achieve natural immunity and be taken care of by therapeutics.’” Contradicting studies and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prager told his audience that natural immunity was more effective than getting the vaccine, saying a COVID infection was “what I hoped for the entire time.”

Prager must have skipped Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Help your neighbors live, save them from danger. You are responsible for their safety. Therefore, getting vaccinated is now law (Halakha) in Judaism.

The Orthodox journal Tradition argues that we must get vaccinated after consulting leading Rabbinic authorities. R. Moshe Ehrenreich, R. Yosef Carmel, R. Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, R. Nachum Rabinovitch, and R. Yisrael Rosen say, “If the vast majority of the physicians in the world and in Israel state unequivocally that one must vaccinate, this becomes halakha, like any halakha, and perhaps even more so because it is known that we act more stringently with dangers than with prohibitions.”  R. Hershel Schachter says: “If a democratic government ultimately legislates that a COVID-19 vaccination is safe for the general public or specific populations, people must comply with this ruling. Jews who refuse to abide by government-mandated vaccination endanger all of society and cause hillul Hashem.” To refuse vaccination desecrates God by acting unhelpfully in front of others.

That explains a lot. I don’t know who Dennis Prager would have been at the Łódź Ghetto, Sobibor, or hiding in the forests. The spectrum includes so many, from Łódź Ghetto Director Chaim Rumkowski to Auschwitz’s 12th Sonderkommando to the angels and the devils to the living and the dead. Few know who they truly would have been when ethics ceased.

We may not know who we would have been then, but what we do know is who we are now during COVID-19. So, I ask: Why are you writing off the “derech” (path), Dennis?

PS: I wish you a speedy recovery with your health intact.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College