Thursday, September 26, 2019

Judaic Grounds to Decline Vaccination?

Background: the questioner is an ordained rabbi. He had previously petitioned his state legislature to abolish religious exemption, claiming that "there are no valid religious grounds to decline any vaccine." I countered that he has no jurisdiction to speak for anyone other than himself, and that there are indeed legitimate religious grounds to not comply with mandatory vaccine schedule. He then emailed me personally, and a correspondence ensured. 


If you defend religious exemption to mandatory vaccination and you are an orthodox Jewish rabbi, does that mean you reject the widely-held assumption that Judaism allows vaccination? And if so, do you then opine that whoever vaccinates their child is violating halacha? If so, please explain which halachic prohibition they are violating.


Judaism is not monolithic. There are different views, and that's okay. Jews can agree to disagree, and rabbis may do the same. However, we must respect every individual's rights to their own religious beliefs.

Before I list the precise prohibitions involved (in my opinion, at least), let me preface by stating that I am not necessarily anti-vaccine in principle, nor do I believe Judaism is either. However, I find strong Judaic basis to not comply with current mandatory vaccine schedule.

It is halachically prohibited to make a chavala (a wound) in oneself unless for a curative benefit to oneself. It is also forbidden to endanger oneself (or even expose oneself to a tiny risk unnecessarily) if not for curative benefit to oneself, i.e. to save oneself from a greater long-term danger. One may not expose oneself to danger even if it will bring some benefit to someone else, and certainly not to protect a so-called herd.

The nature of this prohibition is complicated and a brief email cannot possibly do it justice. Suffice it to say that mandatory vaccination is in serious conflict with halacha, since the mandatory schedule clearly includes vaccines which are medically unnecessary for many children, and have no curative or preventative benefit. I am referring to Hepatitis-B in particular, a disease that cannot be contracted by casual contact, but only through sexual intercourse or contaminated drug needles.

Indeed, those who vaccinate their children in full compliance with schedule may well in fact be violating halacha. As you noted, it depends on which vaccine and the degree of its alleged benefit to this child (versus risks of actual disease).

As to one who vaccinates himself solely in order to protect others who are immunocompromised etc, that may be considered laudatory and praiseworthy conduct, akin to one who donates a kidney in order to save the life of another. See footnote 5 of my previous blogpost

However, it is halachically dubious as to whether a parent may make this decision for his child, who is not old enough to choose for him/herself.

Of course, while donating a kidney is a wonderful and altruistic thing to do on part of the donor, it cannot be mandated, as halacha generally prohibits it, and only allows it for someone who wishes to go beyond the letter of the law to save someone else, what the Radvaz calls "ממדת חסידות," a measure of extra piety. Even if the risk factor is extremely low, a risk still exists. It's not just that halacha doesn't require kidney donation... it actually prohibits it as a general rule, but makes exceptions for pious individuals.

[Parenthetically, perhaps this may be compared to din in Laws of Yesodei Hatorah 5:4 where the Rambam rules "הרי זה מתחייב בנפשו" yet see Kesef Mishna regarding others who held that "צדקה תחשב לו", and moreover as Nimukei Yosef writes דאפילו לפי סברת רבינו אם הוא אדם גדול וחסיד ירא שמים ורואה שהדור פרוץ בכך רשאי etc. Surely the din remains the same, that such behavior is prohibited by the Jewish religion (even if there might be exceptions for יחידי סגולה etc.]

However, something is troubling about this entire discussion.

Your question to me was whether halacha prohibits vaccination.

With all due respect, that is the wrong question to ask.

Ask better: does halacha permit vaccination?

Vaccination (in most cases) requires a chavala, prohibited by Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 420:31.

The question must be asked, does halacha ever permit chavala?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that one may receive an injection only when it is intended to heal him from an actual ailment. (Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 3:90).

Preventative measure (i.e. to prevent him from catching a disease in the first place) might be considered a valid reason as well, but only so long as the risk for disease is substantial (and the disease itself carries significant risks if he contracts it.) And even then, it is doubtful as to whether halacha would ever actually require preventative injection, since every injection carries its own risk (allergic reaction), even if it might encourage it. Furthermore, the CDC delineates a formidable list of possible side-effects for every single vaccine.

You asked about the mandatory vaccination schedule. As I mentioned above, there's at least one vaccine on that list for which its disease poses no risk to anyone's school-age child, and certainly not to any orthodox Jewish child: Hepatitis-B.
For this reason alone, I cannot see how any orthodox rabbi can possibly sanction mandatory vaccination policy.

It is an anathema to Jewish law, and a grave violation of the bodily autonomy of all Americans.

Even worse, it threatens to unjustly ban Jewish children from Talmud Torah, an unthinkable violation of our faith and the very reason our Holy Temple was destroyed! See Masechet Shabbat 119b.

Years ago, people would ask their rabbanim whether they may vaccinate.

No one ever needed to ask whether they may not vaccinate. That's obvious and requires no rabbinic imprimatur. No one may be stabbed with a needle against his will unless it's to save his life (as per Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 328:11).

Something has strangely hijacked the narrative in recent months and years.

Somehow, there is a false notion that everyone must vaccinate, and that special rabbinic dispensation is required in order to opt out.

This is false and without any halachic basis.

All rabbis who perpetuate this falsehood ought to take a sabbatical from their duties and reeducate themselves in authentic Jewish law by reviewing shas and poskim, sans any bias of contemporary prevalent attitudes.

Secular ideas like public health policy might have some hashkafic virtue, but are not factors in halacha.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with you in person if you ever happen to be in Massachusetts. Happy to discuss by phone as well.
This is a serious matter that deserves every rabbi's utmost concern and objectivity.

There are other halachic issues that I haven't even touched on above. Also, there's lots to say on each vaccine individually. I hope to write on the topic of MMR and measles outbreak as well in the near future, and I'll gladly forward it to you once completed.

Wishing you a ktiva vchatima tova lshana tova umetuka
Michoel Green

No comments: