More than three months into the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, states are creating vaccination schedules that prioritize those most at risk of dying from the disease.
However, people not yet eligible under current guidelines are finding ways to get the vaccine ahead of others by lying about physical conditions or leveraging connections in health care.
Five local rabbis say the practice goes against Jewish ethics.
“What we’re talking about is whether people are going to survive this pandemic, and Judaism does not dither when it comes to that,” said Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am.
Rabbi Moshe Brennan at Chabad of Penn Wynne said Jewish law requires a person to protect their own life when all dangers are equal, such as being stranded in the desert with limited water. In situations where not everyone faces equal risk, however, it’s a different story.
Since the sick and elderly face greater risk of fatality from COVID-19 than the young and healthy, it is not ethical for the latter to cut in front of the former to obtain a vaccine.
“Essentially, it’s incorrect and unethical because you’re taking away from someone else something that has a much better chance of helping them than helping you,” he said.
Line cutters are also holding back society as a whole if they get their shot too early, he said.
“Society did not shut down because young, healthy people were getting sick, getting a few symptoms and getting better,” Brennan said. “Society shut down because of the people that were getting it, getting hospitalized and so many didn’t make it.”
Rabbi Gregory Marx, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, said Leviticus 19 makes it clear that line-jumping before all seniors are able to get vaccinated contradicts the Jewish obligation to help the elderly.
‘Leviticus 19 says, ‘You shall rise before the aged and honor the old because I am the Lord your God,’” Marx said. “In other words, you show deference to those who need respect who normally don’t get it.”
He added that Jewish texts advocate to protect the vulnerable, such as the widow, the orphan and the stranger, which emphasizes the importance of ensuring marginalized groups have access to the vaccine first.
“All of Judaism I see as trying to refine human nature, so we don’t act like animals, that it’s not the survival of the fittest, it’s not the survival of the strongest, it’s the emergence of a sense of righteousness, a sense of equity and fairness, because we are all created in the image of God,” he said.
Rabbi Mira Wasserman, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at Reconstructing Judaism and assistant professor of rabbinic literature at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said line-jumping contradicts the core Jewish value of the equality of all human life.
“Jumping the line is a way of saying, ‘My life is worth more than the other person,’” she said.
Rabbi Seth Haaz, senior rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, also said Talmudic texts about equality, like Sanhedrin 4:5 and Berakhot 17a, make it clear that getting a vaccine before someone who is more at-risk does not align with Jewish ethics, particularly in the face of limited supply.
However, things get more complicated when vaccines are set to expire and distributors can’t find eligible takers due to the time crunch.
“In those cases, when vaccines are going to be wasted, they shouldn’t be wasted. They should go to helping people,” he said. In this specific situation, it would be acceptable to get a vaccine before being declared eligible.
Wasserman and Tornberg added that, in most cases, line-cutting contradicts the Jewish value of justice. When people who are able to work from home get the vaccine before essential workers who face exposure to the illness as part of their jobs, they are obstructing the Torah’s commandment to love your fellow as yourself.
“We know that the pandemic has affected different groups differently. Alongside the elderly, other groups that have borne a really heavy burden in terms of the cost of the illness are of course people of color and working poor people. And so they’re another group that the plan for vaccine distribution is meant to protect,” Wasserman said.
Tornberg said the value of tzedakah means Jews are obligated to acknowledge that not everyone has equal access to health care and work to make it more accessible.
“It means righteousness, and it’s about equity, not to be nice, but because a society should be built around the idea that everyone can get what they need,” she said. “We’re not living in that society, so as Jews our job is to try to push our societies further and further towards that justice.”