By Rabbi Micah Peltz
Vaccines against COVID-19 have been invented and approved for use at a record pace. While polls indicate that Americans in overwhelming numbers are ready to take the shot — and are already doing so — there are some holdouts. We must consider as a community what our position is regarding vaccination and other precautions against the pandemic.
Now that a vaccine is available, there arise inevitable questions about the moral-religious obligation to receive the shot, whether our Jewish institutions should mandate it for workers, congregants and students, and how we can ensure the fair distribution of this lifesaving intervention.
The Conservative movement, along with the other dominant streams of American Judaism, leaves very little room for ambiguity on these matters.
As I recently wrote in a teshuvah (rabbinic response) that was unanimously approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, vaccination is a Jewish imperative when recommended by medical professionals. Even when vaccines are approved by an emergency process, as the COVID-19 vaccines have been, they meet the halakhic standards of a refuah b’dukah, an established treatment.
This is especially true in the midst of this terrible pandemic, which has claimed more than 420,000 lives in the United States and over 2 million lives worldwide. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, approved for use in the United States and now having gone into the arms of more than 10 million of our citizens, including my own, clearly meet these standards.
The Conservative movement has been accompanied by the main bodies for Reform and Orthodox rabbis in stressing the necessity and justice of being so vaccinated. And for good reason: Jewish law is replete with injunctions to take steps to protect our health and avoid danger.
“Be careful and watch yourselves” (Deuteronomy 4:9), Moses instructs the Israelites. The Torah even commands us put guardrails on our roofs (Deuteronomy 22:8). Maimonides extrapolated from this specific case that we should take measures to protect ourselves and others.
Rabbi Moses Isserles, in the great code of Jewish law the Shulhan Arukh, insists that we are to avoid all things that endanger ourselves and instructs us that these concerns are to be treated “more stringently than ritual prohibitions.”
Leviticus (19:16) echoes these same messages, with its exhortation to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This is understood in our tradition to mean that we do everything we can to safeguard the health of others.
One would think that none of this should be controversial, that there would be unanimity among rabbis and Jews on these points. Common sense practices that prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and washing hands are not just recommended but are obligated by Jewish law. Nevertheless, there have been well-publicized cases of physical distancing being ignored at large weddings and funerals, and even protests against wearing masks in some communities.
There is a strong consensus among mainstream Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews. Jewish law and tradition include ethical obligations to pursue healthy living and to embrace established scientific practices that contribute to the well-being of all. That well-being can be physical, and it can also be spiritual. To that end, many of my Conservative rabbi colleagues have written prayers and meditations to help people who are coping with illness and who are receiving or administering vaccines.
Our movement’s religious opinion on these matters stipulates best practices for this time.
Taking preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks, washing hands and physical distancing are to be regarded as mitzvot and mandated by Jewish law. Vaccines approved by government health agencies are to be regarded as refuot b’dukot, established medical procedures, and with proper medical guidance Jews are obligated to be vaccinated. Jewish institutions are permitted by Jewish law to require employees, students and congregants to be vaccinated against COVID-19, though secular legal counsel should be consulted.
On a more collective level, we are obligated to ensure the ethical distribution of vaccines globally and nationally. We should favor the most vulnerable, and we should maximize the social benefit by prioritizing first responders and those who can set an example by receiving the vaccine that will encourage others to be vaccinated. Jewish ethics prohibit us from using personal connections, wealth or influence to receive the vaccine sooner than triage criteria would indicate. Effectively, “jumping in line” is prohibited.
We have made it through an awful period of plague, but we might be able to soon turn the corner thanks to vaccination. Let us do our part as members of the Jewish community, Americans and citizens of the world.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He is a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which sets halakhic policy for Rabbinical Assembly rabbis and for the Conservative movement as a whole.