Hoping That Reason Will Prevail

Reading about Jews who are blamed for spreading diseases, especially amidst an undeniably growing anti-semitism in America, throws me back to the Dark Ages. During the Bubonic plague of the 14th century, for example, dozens of Jewish communities in central and northern Europe were attacked by their Christian neighbors, who accused them of deliberately poisoning air or water to unleash the plague. 

Only that this time, the measles outbreak in New York is provenly related to the ultra-Orthodox community, and the most vocal accusers are not the gentiles, but the very members of this community. In an unprecedented act, Satmar paper Der Yid published an editorial in English (the paper is written only in Yiddish) titled “Senseless! Heartless! Torah-less and Reckless”, blasting anti-vaxxers for acting against the Torah and for tarnishing the image of observant Jews. Der Yid joins a call of dozens of Rabbis, heads of Yeshivot, and community leaders urging their people to vaccinate their children. 

Many of the reports about the outbreak of measles in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, indicate that the practice of vaccination is at odds with Jewish belief. It is not true! But what is true is that even though the Halakha, Jewish law, not only permits vaccination, but renders it mandatory (according to the leading Orthodox Rabbis), still a significant number of families choose to not vaccinate their children. A young ultra-Orthodox mother said in an interview, “We’re talking about the idea that God created all humans perfectly. Injecting them with something is like saying that God didn’t create a perfect design.” Where do sentiments like this come from?

They come neither from the Torah nor from the Jewish law. There are two related halakhic principles that would make vaccination mandatory. The first is that it is forbidden for a Jew to place his/her life or health in unreasonable danger. “The Torah teaches us that our bodies are not our own property but belong to God and are to be protected and preserved until such time as God chooses to reclaim it.” It goes without saying that if I do not have the right to endanger myself, I certainly do not have the right to endanger my children. The second focuses on the duty that is owed to others. Just as we are commanded to preserve and protect our own lives, we are similarly commanded to remove impediments or stumbling blocks that cause dangers to others.* Not vaccinating our children put others in danger. 

A major source for the misconceptions in the ultra-Orthodox communities concerning vaccination is a glossy magazine written by and for Orthodox Jewish parents and spread around Jewish communities the old-fashioned way. “The Vaccine Safety Handbook” looks legitimate but is filled with wild conspiracy theories and inaccurate data. It inaccurately suggests vaccines are made up of “toxins.” Without evidence, it claims that vaccines are the nation’s greatest threat to public health and are linked to autism, ADHD, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, miscarriage, and other maladies. The handbook disputes the well-established dangers of illnesses like measles and polio, challenges the effectiveness of vaccines in eradicating those illnesses, and even likens the U.S. government’s promotion of vaccines to the medical atrocities of Nazi Germany. 

The obvious question is why a secular magazine has, for some observant Jews (albeit a small minority), more persuasion power than that of doctors and Rabbis? These parents love their children as much as we do, but perhaps a long history of skepticism of whether what the government says is true causes them to become a fertile ground for dangerous propaganda. Let’s hope that reason will prevail and measles will remain a thing of the past.