For the week ending 29 February 2020 / 4 Adar II 5780

Immunity in the Community

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Michael from NY asked:

With the current Corona virus scare, although there is no vaccine at this time, I was wondering: Are we required to immunize our children? Since the scientific knowledge is not 100% accurate and there is some proof that vaccines can cause harm, are we even allowed to vaccinate children?

Dear Michael,

Our Torah Sages teach that in medical matters we should rely on the experts in each generation. Therefore, as with any medical issue, one is required to find a doctor with sufficient expertise in the subject, such that his opinion may be relied upon.

There's no blanket answer concerning all vaccines, but certainly many childhood diseases have been practically eliminated or reduced since their introduction. Smallpox, for example, once a great killer of children, is today extremely rare. On the other hand, some vaccinations are of highly questionable value. Find a doctor whom you trust to help select the proper immunizations for your child.

The main point in Judaism is to take great care with one’s own health and to take great care not to be negligent in caring about the health of someone else. There are two related principles in Judaism that may be seen to be reasons for making vaccination mandatory. I will present them to provide a basic understanding of the issue, but this discussion is only for general interest and not for making a real-life decision.

The first principle is that is forbidden for a Jew to place his life or health in unreasonable danger. In a classic article Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin discusses the halachic enforceability of Shylock’s agreement with Antonio in “The Merchant of Venice.” Shylock stipulates that if Antonio does not pay his debt on time, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Rabbi Zevin demonstrates that such a clause would be absolutely unenforceable under Jewish law because “our bodies are not our own; they are the property of G-d.” In effect, the Torah teaches us that our bodies are not our own property but belong to G-d to be used in His service and to be protected and preserved until such time as He chooses to reclaim it. This is in sharp contrast to modern medical ethics and political theory which posit autonomy and self-determination as supreme values, and enshrine the attitude that “it is my body and I can do with it what I will” — including reckless endangerment. And, obviously, if I do not have the right to endanger myself, I certainly don’t have the right to endanger my children.

The second principle focuses on the duty that is owed to others. Just as we are commanded to preserve and protect our own lives, we are similarly commanded to remove impediments or stumbling blocks that cause dangers to others. This is derived from the mitzvah of erecting fences around flat roofs so that people who climb onto the roof should not fall down. Moreover, even if I am not the source of the danger I have a duty to do what I can to rescue someone from whatever peril they may be in, such as rescuing someone from drowning etc. “Do not stand by idly over your friend’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Thus, we have duties owed to G-d not to expose ourselves, our children or others to hazards, risks or dangers. Since failure to vaccinate endangers both my children and the children of others, both obligations would lead to same result — a duty to minimize danger.

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