(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com)
Last week a measure was brought up in the New Jersey legislature to remove personal and religious exemptions regarding vaccination requirements. The measure was quashed, according to the New York Times, due to the efforts of various groups. One of those groups that advocated for the measure to be quashed was Agudath Israel of America.
Sometimes, an issue arises where one must choose between two important values. Do we help promote the general welfare of the population? Or do we take steps to avoid any possible future curtailment of religious freedoms? This quandary is complicated, and this was the challenge that recently came up in New Jersey, where the law was proposed to remove the supposed “religious exemptions” to vaccination requirements.
Vaccinations are important. Against the opinions of many laypeople, the overwhelming majority of doctors and public health experts have decried the proliferation of “vaccine denialism.” Removing the religious and personal exemptions to vaccination requirements may, in fact, save lives.
One should also point out that the idea of there being a genuine religious exemption to vaccination in Judaism has been challenged by leading Gedolim. Rav Moshe Shternbuch shlita, the Gaavad of the Eida Chareidis expressed this opinion in a written Teshuvah. The Teshuvah was written to someone who had actually consulted Rav Shternbuch on the issue. Indeed, last year, Agudath Israel of America, decried an anti-vaccination rally held amidst last year’s measles outbreak in their June 14, 2019 statement. It declared the statements at that rally as “senseless musings” and “inflammatory.”
Agudath Israel, according to their statement, explained that they “proactively organized multiple, free vaccination clinics in Borough Park, Flatbush, and Williamsburg; placed full page educational advertisements in community magazines and newspapers; and partnered with the NYS and NYC Departments of Health to disseminate critical information to schools and parents describing best steps to prevent this disease.”
Last year, New York State thankfully passed a measure that eliminated the supposed “religious exemption” to the vaccination requirement. Unfortunately, some people in our community considered this as a “loss” and reinvigorated their efforts to ensure that a similar measure did not pass in New Jersey. Their efforts were fruitful, as was seen last week.
Those who backed the quashing of this legislation – do have a point. Firstly, one of the remarkable parts of this country is the fact that the people have First Amendment Rights – the freedom to hold an opinion or belief. Secondly, there is a chance, however remote it may be, that legislation endorsing the removal of religious exemptions to vaccinations – may result in future legislation that could affect Bris Milah or practices associated with Bris Milah.
There are, however, four counterpoints to this position.
THE FIRST COUNTERPOINT – SIX GROUPS ENDANGERED
The first is that there are immuno-compromised individuals whose lives are being endangered by those who are not vaccinating. The immuno-compromised individuals that have been endangered by the quashing of this legislation include the following:
· Adult cancer patients
· Children who are undergoing chemotherapy
· Those with other medical conditions that leave them immunocompromised
· Those with vaccine allergies
· Those people who do get vaccinated but do not develop an immunity for one reason or another.
Numerous Gedolim and Rabbonim have made this point very clearly – including Rav Elyashiv zt”l. All of these people depend upon others being vaccinated to ensure that their lives are not endangered. This is the first counterpoint.
SECOND COUNTERPOINT – THE PARENTS
The second counterpoint is that the parents of these children are justifiably terrified that the newly empowered anti-vaxxers will endanger their child’s life. One Gadol explained to this author that if those anti-vaxxers among Klal Yisroel would only realize what the parents of children with cancer undergo – and the pain they now experience – they would trip over themselves to get themselves vaccinated.
Think about it: Sitting outside the surgery room after the surgeon radically cut out sections of their infants body that was riddled with cancer; sitting outside the ICU watching the vital signs of their child; sitting for weeks in the hospital as he or she slowly recovers; Months and months of sitting with their child at radiation and chemotherapy sessions; Coming to the sessions only to be told to leave because the platelet count is too low. Patiently feeding a child who now has no appetite so that he or she not starve to death.
And now, after miraculous remission, sending the child back out to a world that cares not a whit about them. Aside from the danger to life – let’s think about the parents – who now can never let their guard down. Now, because of the defeat of this legislation – they are to forever worry. Their carpet has been pulled out from under them – as the organizations and government that they thought might protect them – has done just the opposite.
Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, cites a Midrash that the Zkainim during the time of the Dor De’ah merited greatness in Torah because when they were officers in Mitzrayim – they took the punishments that were meant for Klal Yisroel upon themselves – such was the empathy they had for their brethren! By the same token, Moshe Rabbeinu himself grew in greatness for the very same reason – his empathy for his brethren.
As an aside – numerous, numerous anti-vaxxers in our community got vaccinated – because this was pointed out to them (mi ka’amcha Yisroel!)
THIRD COUNTERPOINT – THE CHILLUL HASHEM AND ANTISEMITISM
The punishment for theft is not the death penalty. The punishment for counterfeiting currency is also not the death penalty. And yet there is a fascinating Taz in Yore Deah 167:8. There, the Turei Zahav writes that a person who is counterfeiting money is endangering the lives of the entire community. He may therefore be handed over to government authorities that would put him to death – and he is considered a rodef because of the anti-semitism.
Is there a possibility of there being a connection between the current and unprecedented wave of anti-Semitism and the measles epidemic that was highlighted in our communities a few months ago? If the TaZ ruled that counterfeiters are considered as rodfim because of the anti-Semitism such activity engenders – why don’t we realize the intense anti-Semitism engendered when declaring a religious exemption (when there is no true religious exemption) that endangers the public welfare?
THE FOURTH COUNTERPOINT
Although the First Amendment is key to our freedoms, there are also limitations to the First Amendment. In 1878, the Supreme Court ruled (Reynolds v. United States) that “Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order.”
The first amendment states that laws cannot interfere with religious belief and opinions, laws can regulate some religious practices (like human sacrifice, for example). The Court stated that to rule otherwise, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
As mentioned in the first paragraph, the issue is complex. There is no question that we must be vigilant in ensuring that our religious freedoms remain unchecked. However, in light of the four issues mentioned above, it seems that the Torah community might consider lending their support to removing the religious exemptions and further educating the masses about the need to vaccinate. This was clearly the view of Rav Elyashiv to those who, at the time, presented the shailos of vaccinations and alternative medicines to him. Let us not make an error in denying the opinions of Rav Elyashiv and lbc”l Rav Shternbuch, and all medical experts in the manner of our advocacy. Remember, the Talmud Yerushalmi states, “kol hamatzil nefesh achas – k’ilu hitzil kol haOlam kulo – whomsoever saves one life – it is as if he has saved the entire world.”
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NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.
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