Op-Ed: Vaccination Laws vs. Religious Freedom

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(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
· Infants
· 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.”

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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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19 COMMENTS

  1. The RMA in SA O’CH 334,26 says that currently we can put out a fire on Shabbos because it is a sakonas nefoshos as it endangers others thereby generating anti-Semitism.

  2. In my opinion the NJ legislature got it right and the NY legislature wrong, because the number of people with genuine religious objections to vaccination is minuscule, and such a tiny number of unnecessary non-vaccinators can be tolerated. Indeed they are batel bemi’utam compared to those who can’t vaccinate, and therefore just as we perforce must accept the latter we should also be able to accept the former, for the sake of preserving the principle of the free exercise of religion.

    However, this is all predicated on the religious exemption being available only to those with a genuine religious objection. The reason the NY legislature abolished the exemption is because the vast majority of parents claiming it were not genuine. For instance, Orthodox Jews cannot have a religious objection to vaccination; their objections, while perhaps sincerely held, are not religious in nature. (No, “venishmartem” does not convert a purely secular objection into a religious one.) So the legislature decided that rather than burden schools with inquiring into the sincerity of each applicant’s objection it would simply abolish it for everyone, genuine and fake.

    The correct approach is the opposite. The schools can and should inquire into the sincerity of the applicants’ claimed religious beliefs. The courts have been clear that while a court cannot inquire into the substance of a religious belief it can inquire into its sincerity.

    And again, it is very easy for Orthodox Jewish schools to conduct such an inquiry, since it would consist simply of telling the parent: Either you believe in the Torah, in which case you have no religious objection, or you believe in some foreign religion, in which case your child is not welcome at our school anyway.

  3. Agudas Yisroel of America said just a week ago, during the debate over New Jersey’s proposed elimination of its religious exemption for vaccines, that the Agudah considers it regrettable that New York’s law was changed last year to exclude religious exemptions.

  4. Among Yidden the issue came up several centuries ago when the first vaccine for smallpox was introduced. It’s a settled question of halacha that there is no “religious” objection to vaccines. and a Yid claiming there is should be suspected of advoah zarah, since he follows the religious teachings of a goyish cult.

  5. Did anyone ever think that maybe some of the anti-vaxxers are very concerned about the reactions that their children have had to vaccines they did receive? They strongly feel that by vaccinating their children they are greatly harming them due to the reactions they had previously.

  6. Let’s post articles that highlight the goods in klal yisroel.

    when we divide our own nation, that’s when the goyim have a power over us and anti semitism reigns.

    Let’s keep the shechina between klal yisrael. We know H’ rests his shechina in places of peace/shalom.

    Shechina means protection and bracha. Shechina in our midst is our ultimate protection. Shechina will only stay with us when we love our fellow jews. Let’s leave the judging to H’, the ultimate judge.

  7. Just as a by the way, the percentage of anti vaxxers among the upper class goyim is exponentially larger than in the frum world. Anti semitism was invented way before the smallpox vaccine. This has nothing to do. During the Measels outbreak last year there was a goyish private school in Rockland county that had about half the kids unvaccinated & they were not barred from attending school.

  8. > ahavas_yisroel

    > “due to the reactions they had previously”

    Who is this “they”? Do you mean the reactions their children had previously?

  9. ahavas Yisroel:

    The anti-vaxxers concerns about their children may be nice and warranted. And they are entitled to their beliefs even if i consider those beliefs completely stupid. But it is a vicious and blasphemous lie to make their objection to vaxxing into a “religious” exemption. Our Poskim have spoken emphatically, and I staunchly refuse to accept the protests of these anti-vaxxers as a new Torah.

  10. to answer the first counterpoint:
    how many people got very sick or died as a direct result of being exposed to someone who wasn’t vaccinated?
    second counterpoint:
    how is it possible that a child who is in remission can be affected by someone who didn’t vaccinate? who runs the world? vaccines? or Hashem? if a child is supposed to be healthy and well, no one else has the power to make that child ill. Where does Emunah come into the picture here? i don’t see it referenced at all in your article.
    third counterpoint:
    antisemitism comes as a message to us to go back to ways of our fathers, come back to Hashem, be b’shalom, achdus in klal yisroel. antisemitism is directly from Hashem
    4th counterpoint:
    what you don’t realize is that once religious exemption is done away with, you will be forced to take every vaccine mandated. there are many vaccines we don’t need and are forced to take. vaccines do have side effects, and i am not sure why you don’t understand that.
    no one will deny that fact.

  11. There’s stupidity, there’s absolute craziness, and there is your comment, “Where does Emunah come into the picture here?”

    I have some suggestions for you, since you purport to tell us what Emunoh is.

    * Do not go grocery shopping. If Hashem wants you to have the food, He will make sure it gets into your home.

    * If you are hungry, do not go to the fridge to find what to eat. Hashem will make sure it finds its way to your mouth.

    You get the picture? I can give you a host of other examples. Hashem provided us with scientific advances and knowledge to take care of ourselves. Same for technology. To deny it is plainly foolish, and denigrates the role of humanity that Hashem instructed us upon our creation. We are to work the fields, not sit and watch them grow by themselves.

    Emunoh does not absolve us from our responsibilities, and it is blasphemous to claim it does. At the end of the day, HKB”H makes these things work for us, and ignoring the Yad Hashem in everything would be an Emunoh problem. But your version of Emunoh has nothing whatsoever to do the the 13 principles of Emunoh as codified by the Rambam (published in every siddur).

  12. To this excellent essay, I would add a reminder about two related ethical obligations. Pekuach nefesh requires that we do what is necessary to save a life and the requirement to remove stumbling blocks from before the blind demands that we dispel the stumbling blocks of fear and ignorance. Subject to the important exceptions you have identified for those certain individuals for whom vaccinations are contra-indicated, government approved vaccinations which offer protection against debilitating, even deadly, infectious diseases are not just permissible, they are required by those who take seriously Jewish ethical obligations.

  13. “ the first counterpoint: 6 Group’s being endangered by antivaxxers”
    Did you notice that most of those listed on the list are vaccine damaged individuals? Material in vaccines cause dangerous allergic reactions as well as cancer (formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen; MRC5 human embryonic DNA is cancerous)
    So maybe you want to consider the possibility that parents who know the facts do not want to inject their children with cancerous material in order to protect others? “Chayecha kodmin “
    It’s unfortunate though that the government uses this card in order to create pressure to vaccinate but then they take away religious exemptions and cancer ridden kids are not capable of getting a medical exemption! Ask Californians. So who are we kidding!!

  14. interesting that the moderator would not let my comments be posted… this is clearly not a forum that is interested in hearing both sides. there is an agenda here on this website and therefore posts representing those that are concerned with the damaging effects that vaccines have had on their children are not allowed through. This puts the entire integrity of this article and any other in question. Why Mr. moderator won’t you let the other side be heard? why are you afraid of hearing first hand the thinking of people who don’t vaccinate? why do you prefer to promote ideas and thoughts about people who don’t vaccinate that are blatantly false?

  15. Being a parent who vaccinates but is cautious, due to adverse reaction to vaccines in one of my children, I found your Op-Ed to be very divisive!
    I asked my shailos to multiple Rabbonim and none of them were willing to take the achrais to tell me to continue vaccinating my child as scheduled. My child is in the category of  · Those with vaccine allergies.
    Yet, my doctor can’t  just give us a blanket medical exemption for that child because the guidelines for medical exemption are extremely tight. So I have no choice but to use Religious Examination under “Venishmartem Meod Le Nafshoiseichem”. In my child’s case it is a sofek of pikuach nefesh to get vaccinated.
    If your Op-Ed and your comments push that NJ bill through, my family will face a choice that no family should ever have to face!!!
    Are you going to tell me that I’m a liar for using religious exemption instead of medical? Last time I checked Venishmartem is a religious obligation. Am I the cause of the problem, and that’s why they are trying to terminate the religious exemption? I sure hope not, but that what this Op-Ed and some comments here seems to say.
    Now, this Op-Ed and many above comments also seem to strongly disagree with Aguda on this issue in general.
    Here are some of my very informed thoughts that all of you should consider before trying to influence the Klal to “Jump off the cliff” on vaccine mandate:
    To best of my understanding, for an Orthodox Jew to advocate removal of religious exemption in current left/progressive political and regulatory climate in solid blue state like NJ is like living in a parallel universe.
    1. Do you eat GMO? Do you think people who don’t eat GMO are crazy? Out of precaution I choose non-GMO products in grocery store over GMO.
    Now, do you want your kid’s DNA tampered with under government vaccine mandate? Well, it’s coming in the next generation of vaccines! They want to make us GMO. Is that OK in your Hashkofa analysis? I bet you did not think about this little twist yet. Yes, genetically engineering your kids DNA to make them more resilient to disease.
    2. We survived our childhood with allot less vaccines and allot less autoimmune issues and allergies than today’s generation! Big corporations love government mandate, it gives them access to endless amount of income. Every new patented vaccine being added to mandated schedules is worth billions in future revenue. So where does it end? Today it is up to 72 dosed by 5 years old, tomorrow it is going to be 200 doses etc. (more dosed = higher chances injuries, allergies, autoimmune issues) Government says we need more and more vaccines. And why not? It prevents illness, protects and saves lives, and also makes truck loads of money for the manufacturers, who in turn donate generously to the law makers that legislate the mandates. We are being forced to be injected with products that often have very short safety record, without any long term safety studies even being considered. Yet, we can’t sue if we get hurt in regular courts! Most of our doctors are either underinformed or in state of total denial. They can’t explain why so many more kids have issues in this generation that were not nearly as common in 70s 80s and 90s. They will deny any possibility that vaccines are to blame, even if the adverse reaction is listed on the vaccine insert. Vaccine court is just an arm of government bureaucracy. Very few victims get proper compensation. We are trapped by the system. We are basically “products” to be profited off in Mega-corp superstore with Government being the consumer. The only way we still have left to get out is religious exemption. And you are saying – let’s shot that door as well. Why all this hysteria now in 2020? What changed?
    No rational person will let themselves or their kids be genetically modified without all inclusive government mandate!

  16. any and all adults that lambast those parents who are concerned with the damage vaccines have done to their children and consider them thoughtless and careless for not continuing to submit their children to a medical procedure to which they reacted adversely in the past in order to “safeguard” other children should please march into their local MD’s office and ask to be treated with the childhood schedule of vaccines. Many adults are not aware that the vaccines children receive today were not given when they were younger and the ones that were their efficacy has in all likelihood waned in the decades since they received their vaccines … so please go ahead and subject yourselves first to “safeguard” the kids you are concerned over. And then let’s revisit this conversation. I don’t wish ill on anyone but the first hand experience of vaccine injury (which can happen to a child or an adult) is a place from which you can’t return.

  17. Moderator, why have you REMOVED the article from its place in the news feed?
    Is that because people started CRITICIZING vaccines?!?

    Moderators Response: This article IS in the “news feed”. YWN publishes around 75 articles a day. Stories get moved down automatically. It’s Tuesday. That Op-Ed was published on Sunday. Get a grip. Not everything is a conspiracy.

  18. @ “The little that i know”
    Yes we have a mitzvah of hishtadlus to work for our food.
    yes we have a mitzvah of hishtadlus to protect ourselves from harm
    but we can’t control what others do for hishtadlus to protect themselves.
    Yes emunah is that we do hishtadlus and the rest is up to Hashem.
    you vaccinate your kids and the rest is up to Hashem.
    you think Hishtadlus involved forcing everyone around you to vaccinate????
    NO!! that is not your concern at all. especially when you have no idea why they are not vaccinating.
    that is Kochi V’otzem Yadi.