If you disagree about the overwhelming importance of childhood vaccinations, chances are you’ve already stopped reading. Studies show people tend to dig in their heels when presented with information that runs counter to deeply held beliefs.
But what if two deeply held beliefs contradict each other?
The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement ruled in 2005 that Jewish day schools can make immunizations compulsory on the grounds of halakha. In a 31-page document that references everything from the Supreme Court to the Talmud, the rabbis ruled that we each have a social contract – a covenant, if you will – to protect the children in our community and, in fact, all children.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of the assembly members, was quoted directly in the ruling: “It would be a violation of Jewish law… for a Jew to refuse to be inoculated against a disease, at least where the inoculation has a proven track record of effectiveness. Jews, to the contrary, have a positive duty to have themselves and their children inoculated against all diseases where the preventive measure is effective and available.”
State law sees things differently and allows parents and physicians to sign personal exemptions for vaccines. As a result, kids in Jewish day schools and Jewish kids in public or secular private school are no more likely to be vaccinated than their non-Jewish peers.
But maybe that’s because too few of us know what Judaism says about vaccines.
Forget the stats. Never mind that measles once infected 3 million a year in the U.S. – killing 500 of them – before the advent of life-saving vaccines. Forget that the made-up link between autism and vaccines has been dissected, disproved and discredited by everyone (save for a Playboy Playmate and a reality show star).
Instead, consider how Jewish law is unequivocal about vaccines. Since the 1700s, vaccinations (and their precursor, variolations) were deemed so important that rabbis ruled you can break Shabbat to get an inoculation.
This is partially because vaccines don’t just protect the vaccinated. If at least 95% of a population is vaccinated, what epidemiologists refer to as “herd immunity” kicks in, preventing a disease from gaining a foothold. If enough of us are vaccinated, even those who are not eligible for vaccines – such as infants and the immunocompromised – get some protection because the spread of the disease is contained.
Personally, I don’t like the term “herd immunity.” I don’t belong to a herd, I belong to a community, one with a halackich obligation to create a “community immunity” and protect us – all of us – from disease.
Jewish law appears to back this up. So, if you won’t listen to science, will you at least listen to your rabbi?
Mayrav Saar is a writer based in Los Angeles.