A few rabbi/physicians told the Jewish News what Jewish law advises about COVID-19 vaccines.
A well-known observation: In medieval times, many rabbis worked as physicians. Less well-known: In our own times as well, several Orthodox rabbis are also physicians. A few rabbi/physicians told the Jewish News what Jewish law advises about COVID-19 vaccines.
Aaron Glatt earned rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Wosner at Machon LeTorah Vehora’ah and his medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He is professor of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau (N.Y.) and assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Woodmere (N.Y.).
Rabbi Dr. Glatt strongly advises that people who are able to get vaccinated as soon as possible and rejects arguments for delaying or refusing.
“Unfortunately, there are many misguided, not scientifically based patently incorrect high-quality glossy pamphlets that are being circulated,” he said. “I have not seen any that identify the names of the ‘expert’ physicians purportedly writing these statements, which are in total opposition to the true experts in infectious diseases who 100% support COVID vaccination efforts.
“They misquote or misrepresent the true facts and unfortunately continue to propagate information that is outright 100% false, such as vaccines cause infertility or cause people to shed virus that infect other people. Both are nonsense with zero evidence to support such falsehoods.”
Rabbi Dr. Shalom Schlagman earned rabbinic ordination at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, affiliated with Yeshiva University in New York, and his medical degree at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) School of Medicine. He serves as a fellow in Hospice and Palliative Medicine at the University of Rochester.
Schlagman takes questions about the COVID-19 vaccine personally.
“My own uncle, my mother’s brother, who was a medically fragile person, was taken from us last spring when he was infected in the first COVID-19 surge,” he said.
“As a resident in a regional quaternary-care academic medical center, I cared for patients whom we could not save from the disease. I literally watched people succumb to the infection despite our most advanced and aggressive medical care, and I witnessed others who languished in our ICU for weeks or months and whose subsequent recovery was complicated by strokes, blood clots or infections from their prolonged bed-bound state.
“I cared for teenagers and children, who, with minimal other symptoms of COVID-19 infection, found themselves in the ICU weeks after initial recovery, now the victims of MIS-C, a complication of the disease that destroys the heart muscle, weakening its ability to effectively pump blood. With all these experiences in mind, I am certain of our collective responsibility to be vaccinated against this plague.”
Addressing “those in the community who worry about the health risks posed by the vaccine itself,” Schlagman notes that “remaining unvaccinated puts one at risk of being infected … the vaccine would seem to pose the lesser risk.”
Schlagman cited the 17th century Talmudist Rabbi Shabbatai Cohen (Shach Yoreh Deah 155:3) to the effect that we should trust expert physicians, “whose good name depends upon good outcomes.” From the standpoint of Jewish law, given that vaccines were developed at great effort by teams of well-trained, expert physicians, “we can trust the vaccines’ efficacy or at least their safety.”
We do not have the option, according to Schlagman, of disregarding the risk to ourselves of COVID-19. The rabbis read the commandment to “guard yourself” (Deut. 4:9, 15), in context calling for “spiritual fortitude,” also to require us to guard “our physical lives from harm” (Talmud Berakhot 32b; Haameq Davar to Deut. 4:15).
“If God has blessed us with good health,” Schlagman asserts, we still have the obligation to be vaccinated to protect others, expressed by the Torah as “do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16) and “return what someone has lost to him” (Deut. 22:2).
So, we must also help others obtain the vaccine, and “continue to practice caution with good habits of social distancing, masking and hand hygiene if we are unvaccinated or interacting with those who are unvaccinated (for example children younger than 12 who cannot yet obtain the vaccine) or the immunocompromised (who, even when vaccinated, may be incompletely protected),” he said.
Schlagman concludes with the biblical exhortation about commandments, “live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), which the Talmud takes to mean “live by them, but do not die for them” (Yoma 85b). “We must … obtain the vaccine which has the potential to save our own lives and the lives of vulnerable members of our communities.”
Henry Hasson earned rabbinic ordination at Pirche Shoshanim and teaches Torah at Ohel David and Shlomo in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has a practice in pediatric neurology in Brooklyn. He earned his medical degree at Albert Einstein Medical College in New York.
Rabbi Dr. Hasson emphasizes the importance in Jewish law of following scientific evidence. He cites Rabbi Avraham, the son of Maimonides, who wrote that we should follow the most proven science, even against the opinion of the Talmudic sages (in Rabbi Avraham’s famous “Letter Concerning the Homiletics of the Sages”).
Hasson reminds us that the Shulchan Aruch rules that one is not permitted to practice medicine without a license (Yoreh Deah 336:1), from which Hasson derives that we “should not just listen to everyone on the internet.”
As for the strategy of waiting for further data on the vaccines, Hasson points out that in matters of danger to life, the rabbis rule that “whoever acts quickly is praised, and whoever hesitates is rebuked” (Maimonides Shabbat 2:16). The Jerusalem Talmud adds another phrase: If someone waits to ask the rabbi what to do, the rabbi is considered disgraceful (Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 8:5); disgraceful because the rabbi should have taught people to act quickly to avert danger.
Doing a Mitzvah
According to Rabbi Herschel Finman, director of Jewish Ferndale and host of The Jewish Hour podcast, “It is not enough to deal with health issues as they arise; we must take precautions to avoid danger.”
The final chapter of the Code of Jewish Law, he says, emphasizes that “just as there is a positive commandment to build a guardrail around the perimeter of a rooftop lest someone fall so, too, are we obligated to guard ourselves from anything that would endanger our lives, as the verse states, ‘Only guard yourself and greatly guard your soul.’”
Finman goes on to say, “We have established that one must do whatever is in their power to save oneself, one’s children and others as well from possible life-threatening dangers.
“It would seem that there is no difference between vaccinating and having to flee a city when there is an epidemic.
“Guarding your own health does not only make sense; it is actually a mitzvah.”