I wrote in this space just over a year ago about the emphasis placed in Jewish tradition on pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, and how that principle would guide our community to suspend in-person gatherings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as vaccination ramps up and we begin to make tentative plans for resumption of in-person programming, I want to share some of what Judaism has to say about our responsibility with regard to vaccinations, listening to medical expertise, and caring for our health.
Prior to the medieval period, Jewish attitudes toward medicine were mixed. But the predominant view since the ruling of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides), who lived in 12th century Spain, is that healing by means of medicine is in fact a religious obligation. We are to administer potentially life-saving medicine to another person even if it means transgressing otherwise stringent prohibitions, such as working on the Sabbath or violating a sworn vow. This directive has been extended in the modern era with the professionalization of medicine to dictate that we are to scrupulously follow the advice of medical experts.
Additionally, even short of matters of life or death, Jewish tradition guides each Jew to guard their physical health and avoid unnecessary dangers. This position is derived from two verses in the book of Deuteronomy (4:9 and 4:15) that direct us to “guard your soul.” Superficially, these verses warn against forgetting the Torah and against idol worship. But ancient interpreters understood them as pertaining to physical dangers as well. Our concern for our health also follows as a consequence of understanding the world to be of God's creation. If God created human beings, and we humans are here today by virtue of this creation, then our bodies belong not to us but to God. We are not within our rights to willfully or negligently sabotage God's creation by endangering our health.
These two attitudes in concert — embrace of scientific medicine and overriding concern for health and safety — have led to broad acceptance of vaccination across Jewish movements. This dates back to a pamphlet published by the Jewish scholar Avraham ben Shlomo Nantzig in 1785 in which he passionately supported “variolation” or “inoculation,” a method of immunization that existed even before Dr. Edward Jenner invented the smallpox vaccine in 1796.
Since that time, a positive view of vaccination, even going so far as to claim that it is obligatory for Jews to have themselves and their families vaccinated against preventable diseases, has been common across the spectrum of Jewish religious practice. All of the major Jewish movements in America (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) have issued statements to this effect this year with regard to the COVID-19 vaccine.
For my part, I will have received my first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by the time this article goes to print. As you can imagine, I am also strongly encouraging members of my Jewish community to arrange for themselves and their families to be vaccinated as well. In light of all the hardship and death this pandemic has caused, I do not believe it is prudent to rely on “herd immunity” or a false sense of security from others recovering or receiving their vaccinations. As a proverb from the Talmud puts it, “A barrel that was uncovered, even though nine drank from it and did not die, a tenth should not drink from it.”
Rabbi Phil Bressler was ordained in June 2018 by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston, where he also earned his MA in Jewish Studies. He serves as the rabbi of Beit Am-Mid-Willamette Valley Jewish Community, located in Corvallis.