Haredi rabbis back vaccine to return to religious normality - analysis

Health Ministry spokesman says there is ‘huge demand’ for vaccine among eligible members of ultra-Orthodox community

Chief Rabbi David Lau receives the coronavirus vaccine at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chief Rabbi David Lau receives the coronavirus vaccine at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed multiple challenges to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population over the past 10 months, with large sections of the community refusing to adhere to Health Ministry guidelines for managing the crisis.
But in the days since the coronavirus vaccination was approved in Israel, the rabbinic leaders of almost all the subsectors of the haredi community, including extremist groups, have said their followers can or should get vaccinated against the disease.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, leaders of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi community, have said people should get vaccinated, as has Rabbi Shalom Cohen, one of the most senior Sephardi haredi rabbis. The Belzer Rebbe called on his hassidim to get vaccinated, and the Gerrer, Vizhnitzer, Boyaner and Erlauer Rebbes have been vaccinated.
The Eda Haredit and the Jerusalem Faction have not issued an explicit call for their followers to get vaccinated, but they have not opposed it either.
Senior rabbis from the Jerusalem Faction on Friday said the vaccine did not appear dangerous, and people should consult their doctors as to whether to get vaccinated. The Eda Haredit has said congregants should do what they are told by their doctors.
Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said he was not surprised by the support given by the rabbinic leadership for the vaccine.
“In general, there is trust in this kind of thing, and the vaccine has been seen as something purely medical, as opposed to the decision by the government to close synagogues and schools, which was seen as a religious or educational issue,” Malach said.
Large parts of the haredi community refused to halt communal prayers, celebrations and other aspects of religious life involving mass gatherings despite the pandemic, while schools in the sector opened in defiance of the law.
Haredi leaders and the general public frequently pointed to inconsistent government coronavirus policies, as well as the permits given for protests and the opening of different leisure activities at various stages of the crisis, as justification for flouting health regulations.
Unlike government coronavirus regulations, taking the vaccine is not disruptive to haredi lifestyle, and it is something relatively easy to permit, Malach said.
Eli Paley, chairman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs and publisher of Mishpacha magazine, said there were two factors behind the rapid support by the rabbinic leadership for the vaccine.
There is “a long tradition of arbiters of Jewish law relying on decisions of doctors,” he said, adding that this trust is “built in” to Halacha.
Although large sectors of the haredi community have not adhered to health regulations during the crisis, Paley said this was not because the leadership and the population belittle the opinion of medical experts, but rather, they sought to find a balance between the health dangers posed by the virus and the “spiritual damage” caused by complying with the regulations.
The rabbis have expressed specific concern that haredi youth in the late teens and early 20s might lose their identity without an educational network and have complained that such a process has happened among some.
“They saw corona as something threatening the [haredi] social order, and that caused great spiritual damage in communities,” Paley said.
If there is a way to get back to normality as fast as possible, then you need to do that as much as possible.
According to Avi Blumenthal, a spokesman for the haredim department of the Health Ministry public advocacy unit, large numbers of those in the haredi community who are currently eligible for the vaccine are getting vaccinated.
“There is heavy demand for the vaccine,” he said. “The health clinics and vaccination stations are full of those getting vaccinated and are issuing the vaccine until late at night. There has been an amazing response.”
Blumenthal said the major work of the haredi division was undertaken during the months ahead of the arrival of the vaccine in cooperation with associates and assistants of senior rabbis to convince them of the necessity of supporting vaccination.
The division connected the rabbis and rabbinical judges with medical experts in the Health Ministry, who gave them all the relevant information about the vaccine and allayed any concerns they may have had, he said.
“As soon as there was support from Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Edelstein, the support of the non-hassidic sector was guaranteed, while support from the hassidic Rebbes did the same for that sector,” Blumenthal said. “There is full consensus.”
The Health Ministry’s haredim division has focused its public-relations vaccine campaign on the support of the leading rabbis, taking out advertisements in haredi newspapers that say the rabbinic leadership has called for the community to get vaccinated and has issued question-and-answer sheets on the issue.
The ministry is also releasing a series of videos featuring Dr. Aryeh Waldman, a haredi doctor in the Meuhedet Health Maintenance Organization, discussing the safety of the vaccines.