Booster Shot for Jewish Values
Jewish teaching and public health agree: Vaccinate your kids. What should be done about the opt-outers?
The textual backup for the initiative is there. Judaism has a clear halachic defense of vaccination. Jewish ethicists have interpreted the words in Deuteronomy, “greatly guard your souls,” to mean we have a moral duty to protect ourselves and others from disease. Reb Nachman of Breslov, who died of tuberculosis in 1810, before there was a vaccine, wrote: “One must inoculate every baby against smallpox before one-fourth of the year, because if not, it is like spilling blood.” Scott Aaron, the community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning in Pennsylvania (and a rabbi who is also a lawyer!), said, “It boils down to an issue of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, which is a sacred commandment.” The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, says, “It is a positive commandment to remove anything that could endanger life … and to guard yourself and guard your soul. Someone who does not remove that which is potentially dangerous will have set aside this positive mitzvah.”
Tapping into existing community values was exactly what two doctors in Pennsylvania did back in 2007 to increase vaccination compliance in Jewish schools in their area. Today, the schools require vaccines for admission. (If parents still want to opt out, they must get the OK from a state-approved primary healthcare provider, not just any doctor.) And indeed, disease rates have gone down. The physicians’ initiative came on the heels of a teshuvah in 2005 by the Conservative movement about whether a Solomon Schechter Day School could refuse entry to non-inoculated kids. (I interviewed Joseph Prouser, the author of the opinion, for The Forward a few years ago. The answer: Yes.)
But it may be harder to reach the crunchy types than the Orthodox. To defiant patchouli-scented opter-outers, the fact that authorities from all three of the major branches of Judaism have come out in favor of vaccination is irrelevant. To them, their individual liberties and free choice are far more important. “In Judaism, the idea of the community is sacred, but in America we sometimes struggle with the notion of the individual versus the community,” Aaron said. “Americans are very enamored of individual rights, but Jewish law doesn’t necessarily come down as often on the side of the individual as opposed to the community.” If your authority figure is an anti-vaccine blog network rather than a rebbe, you’re going to be harder to win over to the values and virtues of vaccination.
I have to remain hopeful that we’ll still win them over, though I don’t know how. However, the tenor of conversations I’ve been having with my anti-gun-control friends on Facebook in the wake of the horrid Newtown shooting has been inspiring. It’s been respectful. Even my friends who adore guns and have been hostile toward any sort of regulation in the past are now saying they’d be willing to consider an assault-weapons ban, or bans on huge ammo clips, or better background checks. They expressed disgust and dismay with the NRA’s statement last Friday that the solution to school shootings is more guns in schools. I hope it won’t take more deaths of innocents for this same mental shift to happen with vaccines. Regardless, it’s clear that hectoring and shaming are not strategies that work. We need to take a page from the Pennsylvania initiative and try modes of education that do. Yes, I was irked by my kid’s public school’s overzealous response to her lack of a booster shot. But I’ll take it as the cost of doing the business of saving lives.
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