Can a rabbi tell you whether to take the coronavirus vaccine?

What exactly is the function of a rabbi, especially during these trying times?

BE A source of inspiration: Rabbi Noam Schwartz of Chabad reads the Scroll of Esther in a Katzrin bomb shelter on February 26. (photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
BE A source of inspiration: Rabbi Noam Schwartz of Chabad reads the Scroll of Esther in a Katzrin bomb shelter on February 26.
(photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
A young woman approaches her mother for advice. “Mom, should I marry a doctor or a rabbi?”
Her mother answers, “Well, let me put it this way: If you marry a doctor, you can get cured for nothing, and if you marry a rabbi you can be good for nothing.”
We are living in a time in which there seems to be a real desire of rabbis to be doctors. At the beginning of the pandemic, many rabbis held online classes and videos on the halachic implications of the pandemic (outdoor minyanim, saying the kaddish memorial prayer over Zoom, burial during COVID, and more). Others discussed the moral meaning of the pandemic. Still others told us what the world would look like after the pandemic is over and why it was happening.
I’m not sure how they knew, but at least all that is sort of within the confines of the rabbinic intellectual milieu. However, as time went on, more and more rabbis voiced opinions on the way to avoid the virus, whether to be vaccinated or not, whether to go to mass funerals, whether to open schools, even what to eat and what medications to take. So why did they all of a sudden want to become doctors?
More than two months ago, I received a call from a former student. He wanted to know my opinion of the vaccine. I reminded him that I was a rabbi, and even my doctorate was in Jewish philosophy, not medicine. He said that he trusted me and wanted my opinion. So I asked him what his doctor told him. He said his doctor said to take it.
“Okay,” I said, “so what’s the problem?” He said he was nervous since he heard so many people saying not to take the vaccine.
I said, “So ask your doctor what he thinks about that, too.”
He said, “I did, and he suggested if I’m nervous to wait one month until we see more side-effects, and if all is well then to take it.”
“That’s sounds reasonable,” I said. However, he still wanted my opinion.
I have great respect for students or just anyone who wants an opinion from a rabbi but little respect for rabbis who think they are more knowledgeable than doctors, virologists and epidemiologists. It seems as if they are just hungry for the limelight at a time in which the doctors are taking all the fame.
The Internet has opened the world of Torah talks to thousands of Jews and non-Jews who are interested in hearing what the rabbis are saying. Unfortunately, many fame-seekers, newly religious individuals and self-proclaimed rabbis are voicing their ideas and the name of Judaism or in the name of kabbalistic sources (without of course quoting any of the sources), presenting themselves and quasi-prophets and omen-readers. This begs a more proper definition of a rabbi. What exactly is the function of a rabbi, especially during these trying times?
First I want to say what it is not. The function of a rabbi is not to tell you whether or not to take a vaccine. The Talmud in Bava Kama 85 says in the name of rabbi Yishmael: “It says, ‘And he shall surely be healed.’ [ve-rappo yerappei, Exodus 29:19) From here we can learn that permission was given to doctors to heal the sick. This is the doctor’s job.”
JUST A FEW weeks ago, a certain individual in the haredi community who calls himself a rabbi voiced his reservations about taking the vaccine. I must admit that in contrast to the anti-vaxxers who claim to be supported by many rabbis and perhaps quote one doctor to support their position, this one asked questions and said he would be happy to receive an answer.
A few weeks later, a biology professor from Bar-Ilan University made a video answering the rabbi’s questions. In the meantime, the rabbi made a second video that was more focused on his opposition to vaccinations, to which the Bar-Ilan professor responded with a second video, also supplying answers.
It was interesting to see the comments in response to the professor’s videos. Many commenters thanked him for answering the questions, while others attacked him for the audacity of speaking against their rabbi. It’s as if medicine has gone back to the realm of beliefs and opinions.
I am also unhappy with a certain National-Religious rabbi who wrote in a weekend Shabbat pamphlet that anyone who does not take the vaccine should be socially ostracized and not included in a minyan or invited for Shabbat. Even more extreme was another National-Religious rabbi, a colleague of mine, who I was shocked to see write that a non-vaccinated person is like a rodef – a “pursuer” – someone who is coming to attack me. This is dangerous water to be treading in.
Even if we want to encourage people to get vaccinated, and I am all for that, I believe an individual has the right to decide if he or she wants to take the vaccine or not (although they must wear a mask and socially distance). I also think there should be transparency and that differing voices in the medical field should be heard. Remember, not everyone in Israel who has not been vaccinated is an anti-vaxxer; they might simply be nervous or afraid. A person is allowed to be afraid. That’s why it would be good for there to be online discussions between professionals speaking about people’s concerns. Ultimately, the efficacy of the vaccines are a question for science, not for rabbinical discussion.
So, then, what should a rabbi do in these times?
1. Provide clarification. There have been many halachic issues that need to be clarified regarding outdoor minyanim, whether certain prayers can be recited without a minyan or over the Internet, burial issues, and many other halachic problems. Many rabbis have already written extensively on these issues.
2. Be a source of inspiration. These are hard times for everyone, and especially for those who live alone. People are suffering from depression and solitude and need to hear a good word. A hotline for people who just need to talk would be great, but at a minimum, online videos of encouragement based on the wealth of our traditions are needed.
3. Display moral leadership. If political leaders falter, rabbis can and should speak out on moral issues, but not in the name of any particular party or platform.
4. Teach Torah, even in short videos and classes; not to make anyone become like this or that person, but to reach everyone on their level. “Educate the young according to their path.” (Proverbs 22:6)
5. Concerning those who like to see their names in lights, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said (Likutei Moharan 61:2): “That’s why the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, ‘Make for yourself a Rav.’ A person must learn to discern who has the talent, character and knowledge.”
The writer is a senior lecturer at the school for basic Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University.