Jewish Law - Preparing for flu season and a coronavirus vaccine

Vaccinations are undoubtedly one of the greater inventions of the modern era – and this blessing sometimes leads to complacency.

WORKING ON a COVID-19 vaccine at Kiryat Shmona’s MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in March (photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)
WORKING ON a COVID-19 vaccine at Kiryat Shmona’s MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in March
(photo credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)
Around the world, the race is on to find a vaccine for COVID-19. Billions of dollars are being invested as scientists explore different options to stop this horrific pandemic. Once it becomes available, inevitable questions will be emerge about mandating all citizens to take the vaccine, raising the question of whether halakha mandates participation in this undertaking, even to the point where we may force parents to inoculate their children. This issue has come up in recent public health campaigns against the resurgence of polio and measles.
This question partly relates to the obligation to administer preventative medicine. The Torah promises that God will protect those who observe the commandments with complete fidelity. Yet Jewish sources have long recognized that no one can remain assured that they are worthy of such Providential protection or rely on miracles to save them. The Torah commands, “Be Careful and Watch Yourselves” (Deuteronomy 4:9), which was understood as a directive to avoid dangerous situations and activities. Jewish law requires us to remove dangerous objects from our environs, ranging from shoddy ladders to dangerous dogs to unprotected weapons. The spirit of these norms derives from the Biblical obligation to place a guard railing around one’s roof. Both Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo list prohibited activities within their legal codes with Rabbi Moshe Isserles further adding that “one should avoid all things which endanger oneself as we treat physical dangers more stringently than ritual prohibitions.”
The question remains how proactive a person must be to avoid such scenarios. Generally speaking, Jewish law asserts that one may undertake certain risks that most humans accept with equanimity (Shabbat 129b). We ski, drive cars, and undergo elective surgery even as all those activities entail certain risks. Yet in the case of vaccinations, one must also note that the goal is to protect not only oneself but the entire community, nation, or even world. Anyone familiar with the history of smallpox or rubella knows the terrifying horrors that they caused. The Torah commands us not to stand idly over someone else’s blood, thereby imposing a responsibility to care for others.
In the late 18th century, doctors attempted to prevent the continued onslaught from smallpox by inoculating healthy people with a low grade of fluid taken from stricken patients. The hope was that a mild, controlled dose would allow the body to protect itself from a wild, spontaneous outbreak, even as this imposed a risky level of exposure. As David Ruderman has documented, Rabbi Avraham Nansich, himself mourning the death of two children, published a pamphlet in 1785 urging Jews to participate in this initiative. While one might not normally permit such precarious inoculations, he argued that all humans are at greater danger from a deadly outbreak and therefore everyone must accept the risks imposed by inoculation. Edward Jenner’s invention of a safer smallpox vaccine at the turn of the 19th century was celebrated by scholars like Rabbis Israel Lifshitz and Mordechai Banet who strongly advocated vaccination and noted that this was a far superior alternative than the solution mentioned in earlier halakhic literature: flee the town. When vaccinations were only available for a limited time in one’s area, many scholars allowed people to desecrate the Shabbat to receive the treatment.
Vaccinations are undoubtedly one of the greater inventions of the modern era and have saved countless lives. This blessing sometimes leads to complacency as some individuals become immune to the phenomenon of mass outbreaks and plagues. Others fear immunizing their families because of the minimal risks associated with vaccines. In effect if not in intent, they rely upon the so-called “herd immunity” that occurs when most other people get vaccinated, thereby reducing the chance of contagion. Public health officials have strongly countered that vaccines present minimal risks (especially relative to other health care procedures) and that many of the sensationalistic claims linking vaccines to autism and other terrible side effects have been scientifically refuted. Furthermore, we must reserve the protections of “herd immunity” for those who cannot get vaccinated because of weaker immune systems. Nonetheless, certain people around the world continue to avoid vaccinations, including limited elements of the Jewish community who experienced tragic outbreaks of mumps and measles in recent years.
As Rabbi Asher Bush has noted, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv argued that given the widespread contemporary medical consensus in support of universal vaccination, parents are obligated to vaccinate their children and schools or camps may exclude those who fail to take those preventative measures. Other Jewish decisors asserted that in the absence of an outbreak or national legal mandate, schools should strongly encourage but cannot force the vaccination of children, even as their parents remain negligent since Jewish law decidedly supports vaccination. This follows the health policies of many countries that allow for conscientious objectors to avoid vaccinations. In the case of COVID-19, however, one anticipates that there will be strong national orders for mandatory vaccination which will be supported by Jewish law once the vaccine process is deemed safe by international health authorities.
In the interim, we should be looking toward the coming flu season this winter and the vaccine against influenza. Every year, the government puts out campaigns to maximize vaccinations, with varying success. This year, one hopes that all citizens will quickly take part in these critical efforts in minimizing illness throughout our country, which is certainly called for by Jewish law.
The writer, a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.