The Jewish Call to Vaccination

Posted on May 9, 2021

It started in Israel as so many innovations and moments of progress often do. Once again, they were the leaders and the ones who were blazing a path for the rest of the world to follow. It began with a new type of photograph shared on social media. A picture of two masked people, one with their sleeve rolled up and the other administering an injection. These were the first photographs that I saw of my friends and family receiving their Covid vaccinations. Given my social network they were often accompanied by words of blessing praising God: rofeh chol basar – who heals all flesh, or shecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh – who has brought us to this moment; or they were accompanied by a joke about Bill Gates’ microchip or improved 5G service on their cellphone. And what started in Israel soon spread across the globe. Photos not of an injection being administered, but of people holding up a card with the word Pfizer or Moderna on it and a date, with space for future entries to be added.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard that  the first of my family members had been vaccinated. It was that unseasonably nice week in December and my family were at a playground. I was pushing Benny on the swings when my phone dinged with a text message. It was a picture of my Saba, my 91-year-old grandfather receiving his first vaccination shot. In the background there was a cartoonish image of a medical professional with a cape, fittingly representing the fact that they are the superheroes who are keeping us safe. My eyes became moist, and I then proceeded to share the photograph with my wife and children, feeling a sense of relief that he was one significant step closer to immunity, and I was, by extension, one step closer to being able to see him in person again.

Since then, I have seen countless photographs of friends and family receiving their vaccinations and heard about the experience from many others. With each one, I feel this little weight being lifted from my shoulders, knowing that a person I care about is protected and that we are one step closer to controlling this pandemic.

My colleague Rabbi Dan Moscovitz shared a graph from the Public Religion Research Institute about vaccine acceptance, hesitancy, and refusal. As you can see there is a significant difference in responses to the vaccine among different religious groups. It is striking to see that Jews are at  the top with the highest level of acceptance – 85%, with only 10% hesitant and just 5% refusing. Dan amusingly commented: “Jews! Early adopters since 1800 BCE!”

As a Jewish community our vaccination rates are high, as residents in Massachusetts our vaccination rates are high; but at the beginning of the week we were greeted with headlines that suggested herd immunity is now unlikely in the US.[1] The experts are suggesting that as a result of vaccine hesitancy among a significant proportion of the population and because of the continuing arrival and spread of new variants it is doubtful that we will achieve the ultimate aim of herd immunity. In response to these items of news Yvonne Abrahams wrote an article in the Boston Globe entitled: The good news: Our region has the highest vaccination rates in the country. The bad news: We can’t secede.[2]

Ms. Abraham’s desired response may be a little extreme, but she does challenge us to consider what our role is at this moment. I would add that it’s not all doom and gloom. While the wished-for herd immunity may be unattainable, for now; there is optimism that the threat will become manageable, outbreaks will be smaller, and infections will be milder.

Up until now we have not preached about vaccinations from this bimah, choosing instead to leave it as a private matter. I recognize that there are some in our community who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons and that the vaccine is still not yet available for children. It is also clear that there are a variety of reasons why people might be refusing to have the vaccine. I am not the expert to refute those claims. Instead I want to talk about a subject that I do feel comfortable discussing, which is Judaism and to offer a Jewish perspective on vaccinations, one which I think might explain why the Jewish community has the highest levels of vaccine acceptance.

When we think about Jewish ethical imperatives, it is clear that the primary one, above all others, is pikuach nefesh – the commandment to preserve life. It is so important that the obligation to fulfil this commandment permits the breaking of virtually every other Jewish commandment that we have. We see the call to save a life, not just as an obligation, but as an imperative. This has been the primary Jewish reason given for vaccinations, similar to the way in which it was given as the explanation for adhering to social distancing guidelines, quarantining, and masking.

But the interesting thing is that the literal translation of Pikuach Nefesh is not saving a life, rather it can most readily be translated as looking after or watching over a soul. In this way it goes further than just saving a life that is in danger, but rather calls on us to be active in safeguarding that life before the threat arises. In the context of vaccinations, it is with this understanding that I believe Pikuach Nefesh makes a call upon us not simply to be vaccinated to protect ourselves, but rather to be vaccinated to protect others. We have long understood the idea of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh[3] – all Israel are responsible one for another. But as I said in March of last year, we need to expand our traditional line to become kol Bnei Adam arevim zeh bazeh – all humanity, the children of Adam and Eve, are responsible for one another. Getting the vaccine is not simply about protecting ourselves, but instead, through our actions, we have the potential to protect all of humanity.

In her book “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” Eula Biss, considered the anxiety around vaccinations for new parents. This book was published in 2014 and so it predates the current debate around Covid, but it is so relevant to the conversations of this current moment. In considering the choice to vaccinate our children, she reflects on the way that our individual choices impact our society and the responsibility we have to each other. She writes: “If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination”[4]

This idea of the collective communal body and our shared immunity bank account resonates in connection to this week’s Torah portion. As we read the beginning of Behar-Bechukotai we are instructed to observe the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. These two obligations remind us of our interconnectedness and the fact that we share the land with each other and can only flourish when we support one another. The portion clarifies that the Israelites must keep the mitzvot, the commandments, not just for themselves, but for the entire community to succeed. As an extension of this, we are warned that if we individually break the commandments then collectively we will suffer. We could almost read the Bible as suggesting that observing the commandments provides a herd immunity to ensure we flourish on the land.

Returning to the matter at hand, it is clear to me that Judaism advocates that everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated. The Central Conference of America Rabbis (CCAR), of which Rabbi Jordi and I are both members, issued a resolution two weeks ago that urged: “its members and members of the communities we serve to be vaccinated, unless ineligible or medically disqualified.”[5] And then it called on us to be role models in following state and local guidelines on obtaining the vaccine.

So, I want to do something that I have not yet done, I want to share my Covid vaccination photograph. At the time I did not put anything on social media (a shocking revelation to any of you who follow my Facebook page and see the extent of my usual sharing), and only sent it to my immediate family. As a relatively young man, with no pre-existing medical conditions, who was only eligible for the vaccine as a result of my profession, I was uneasy at sharing it publicly. I felt immensely grateful and privileged to be receiving the vaccine and I was uncomfortable with that public display. But with the need to encourage those who are hesitant to become accepters rather than refusers, with the availability of the vaccine today, and with the call to be a role model, I feel that it is a photograph which I need to share.

While the news reports might suggest that herd immunity is currently unattainable, I am pleased to make my deposit and contribute to our communal vaccination bank account and I am heartened that the Jewish community is collectively contributing in great numbers. Abraham and Sarah were called: “And you shall be a blessing … and through you all the families of the earth should be blessed.”[6] Perhaps today there is an opportunity, for all who are able, to be a blessing and to bring blessing through vaccination.

[1] One example is here:
[3] Talmud Shevuot 39a.
[4] On Immunity, p.19
[6] Genesis 12:2-3