A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. 

For Rabbi Reuven Mann, the question of whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has a simple answer: “Everyone must get the vaccine as this will protect him and the people he comes in contact with.”

Mann, the founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix, has been in Israel since the COVID-19 pandemic began. He and his wife received the first injection of the Pfizer vaccine at the end of December.

“According to Judaism one must do everything possible to protect one’s life and insure one’s health,” he said, via email. “We must be grateful to G-d for enabling us to obtain this life-saving treatment as well as to the scientific community that was involved in producing this remedy.”

As the U.S. government launched the largest vaccine distribution program in the country’s history, most rabbis seem united in support of the rollout to battle the coronavirus pandemic, and stress that vaccination is consistent with Judaism’s highest value: preserving life.

Two Orthodox rabbinical bodies, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, issued a joint statement that there’s a Torah obligation to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available.

The vaccines can even be viewed in light of the recent Torah portion about Joseph and his brothers and “the paradox of God’s omnipotent involvement in human affairs versus the necessity and reality of human effort, action and achievement,” according to Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs, leader of Beth Joseph Congregation and member of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Greater Phoenix, via email.

The vaccine is a combination of human skill and talent and God’s blessing, he said.

“Protecting oneself is a mitzvah; protecting one’s community is a mitzvah. Vaccines allow us to do both,” agreed Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, via email. “One should recite two blessings of gratitude at the first vaccination shot — shehechiyanu and ha’tov v’ha’meitiv; and one at the second vaccination shot — gomel.”

Other rabbis echoed Yanklowitz’s point about preserving and protecting life — both that of the individual and of others.

“You can overturn virtually every law in the Torah to save life, and there’s no question that vaccination is overwhelmingly life-saving,” said Danny Schiff, a Reform rabbi and foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Vaccination does two things — it preserves your life and others. Judaism wants to preserve the well-being of the individual, and the idea is we also have a responsibility to each other.”

Rabbi Mindie Snyder, rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities, emphasized the point as well. Rabbinically, she said, vaccinations are important in that they protect life.

“This is a very big deal,” she said. “We understand whoever saves one life is considered as if they saved an entire world.”

There is less agreement on prioritization and making the vaccine mandatory.

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider believes it should be mandatory. Schneider, spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami and past president of the Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis, pointed out that despite his personal belief, individuals have the power to decide whether they will take the vaccine.

“My job is to teach the moral and Jewish position on the science,” Schneider said, via email. The government and other institutions have the power of enforcement, and he leaves the ultimate responsibility to them. However, he plans to set a personal example for his congregants by taking the vaccine when he is able.

“But I must also take the time to listen, with empathy and real concern, to those who resist that obligation.”

Several praised the decision to prioritize the vaccination of essential workers in health care, agriculture, education, law enforcement, transportation, firefighting, food distribution and sanitation.

“Both the government’s guidelines and Jewish law as I interpret it would have us save as many lives as possible,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, professor of philosophy at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. “I presume … non-health-care essential workers will get the vaccine before the elderly and those with medical conditions because people who stock grocery shelves and do other essential things to enable us to live need to be protected to do their jobs in the name of the communal good. … People can die of starvation as much as from COVID-19.”

From both a “purely ethical” and utilitarian perspective, “you vaccinate most the vulnerable first — the elderly in nursing homes,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, the religious leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a Conservative synagogue. Wolpe can see the argument, too, for prioritizing “front-line workers who are forced out of their homes day after day.”

In Isaacs’ view, because the vaccine belongs to the federal government, they are the correct arbiter of how it should be distributed as long as “the criteria are fair and not discriminatory.”

He shied away, however, from a personal recommendation. “Rabbis taking positions on medical issues — or physicians taking positions on rabbinic issues — is like mixing milchigs with fleishigs — dairy with meat,” he said.

Rabbi Mark Wildes, the founder of Manhattan Jewish Experience who works with Jewish singles in their 20s and 30s in New York, thinks that younger Americans will respond positively to opportunities to get the vaccine.

Rabbi Jordan Brumer agreed. Brumer, the director of Jewish Arizonans on Campus, is excited about the possibility of the vaccine bringing an end to the pandemic as well as the hope it brings to the college students he works with. “We are encouraging all of our students to receive the vaccine at the first possible opportunity,” he said, via email. 

In addition to caring about older people and wanting “to do the right thing,” said Wildes, the young people with whom he works “want to go to work, to play sports, to date, to socialize, and if the vaccine is going to allow that, they are going to be flocking to it.”

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins, authorities hope that enough Americans will take the vaccines to achieve herd immunity. While the exact threshold is unknown, experts estimate that between 75% and 85% of Americans will need to be vaccinated for that to be achieved.

By some recent polls, as high a proportion as half of all Americans said they have reservations about taking the vaccine, and more than one poll reported conflicted views about sectors of the Jewish public agreeing to get the vaccine, both in America and Israel.

Some Orthodox health professionals and communal leaders worry that a vocal minority of their community won’t heed their guidance. They point to skepticism regarding the vaccine in the overall population because of anti-vaccine sentiments, as well as nervousness with the speed at which the vaccines were developed and the politicization of the virus.

Isaacs agreed, saying he has very little direct contact with what he terms “a small but highly vocal group or fringe group in the Orthodox community that is opposed to vaccines in general and this vaccine in particular.” He noted, however, that its views on the vaccine are from an adoption of a general anti-vaxxer platform “rather than one based on Jewish tradition.”

Mann is more concerned that people may let their guard down and stop wearing masks because the vaccine makes them feel the danger is past. But although “this has been a long season of suffering for many people due the devastation wrought by this pandemic,” he hopes people will stay vigilent.

Still, he’s focused on the “light at the end of the tunnel” the vaccines bring after nearly a year of darkness and disease.

“Let us hope that with mass immunizations the dark clouds which hover above us will soon dissipate and we will emerge as a more wise and compassionate society.” JN

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