Vaccination: A Jewish Obligation

June 15, 2021Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Initially, there was a rush for people to be able to get the vaccine. We waited anxiously for our group (health status, age, or profession) to be included in those eligible to book an appointment. But recently those numbers have decreased, and mass vaccination sites are being closed with less demand.

In the Jewish community we can be proud of the fact that we are the most enthusiastic about getting vaccinated. Figures from the Public Religion Research Institute about vaccine acceptance, hesitancy, and refusal had Jews at the top of the list. We have the highest level of acceptance at 85% with only 10% hesitant and 5% refusing. As Rabbi Dan Moscovitz commented: “Jews! Early adopters since 1800 BCE!”

As a Jewish leader, it is my responsibility to reach out to the 15% of our community who may be hesitant or refusing to get vaccinated and encourage them to rethink their stance. I recognize that there are some who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons; for all others, the Jewish approach is to get vaccinated.

When we think about Jewish ethical imperatives, the primary one, above all others, is pikuach nefesh – the commandment to preserve life. The obligation to fulfill this commandment permits the breaking of virtually every other Jewish commandment. We see the call to save a life not just as an obligation but as an imperative, and this is the primary Jewish reason for vaccinations.

Interestingly, the literal translation of pikuach nefesh is not saving a life; rather it can most readily be translated as looking after or watching over a soul. It therefore goes further than just saving a life that is in danger; rather, we are called upon to actively safeguard that life even before the threat arises. In the context of vaccinations, it is with this understanding that I believe pikuach nefesh calls on us to be vaccinated, not only to protect ourselves but to protect others. We have long understood the idea of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Israel are responsible one for another. But Covid has reminded us kol Bnei Adam arevim zeh bazeh – all humanity, the children of Adam and Eve, are responsible for one another. Getting the vaccine is about our ability and obligation to protect all of humanity.

In her pre-Covid 2014 book, On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss, considered the anxiety of new parents around vaccinating their children. In reflecting on the way that our individual choices impact our society and the responsibility we have to each other, she writes: “If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.”

This idea of the collective communal body and our shared immunity bank account resonates with the way that Torah understands our observance of mitzvot,mitzvahמִצְוָהLiterally, “commandment." A sacred obligation. Jewish tradition says the Torah contains 613 mitzvot Mitzvot refer to both religious and ethical obligations. commandments. All Israelites are obligated to keep the mitzvot, not just for themselves, but for the entire community to succeed. As an extension of this, we are warned that if we individually break the commandments, then collectively we will suffer. The Torah is clear about our interconnectedness and our individual ability to ensure communal safety or suffering.

Herd immunity may currently be unattainable, but having been vaccinated, I am pleased to make my deposit and contribute to our communal vaccination bank account, and I am heartened that the Jewish community is collectively contributing in great numbers. Abraham and Sarah were called: “And you shall be a blessing…and through you, all the families of the earth should be blessed.” Perhaps today there is an opportunity for all who are able to be a blessing and to bring blessing through vaccination.

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