It has been almost a year since the start of the pandemic, when life as we knew it came to a screeching halt. Now, vaccines are starting to be distributed, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet some Americans still refuse to get their COVID-19 vaccination for a number of reasons. For those who are uncertain about whether to get the vaccine, Judaism provides a useful guide.
The Torah is far too old a text for ideas such as a vaccine, but it still contains recommendations to deal with health problems and plagues. For example, Leviticus Chapter 13 talks about what a priest should do if someone has leprosy. It starts by saying that the infected person has to report to a priest if they get symptoms. If the priest ruled that the person was infected (based on the guidance that God gave Moses and Aaron), they would have to isolate themselves for seven days and then get reexamined by a priest to see whether they could be allowed back into the community.
Of course, parallels to the ongoing pandemic and quarantine procedures are apparent, but what do Jewish values say about vaccines?
To start, we have to understand one of the best known Jewish values: Love your neighbor as yourself. Simply put, in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you first need to love yourself. This type of thinking is the backbone to how Jewish scholars, and thus Judaism, approach ideas such as getting a vaccine.
In the Talmud, there is a story that is like a Jewish version of the “trolley problem,” a popular ethics scenario. In this biblical version, you and a stranger are walking on a desolate path that is far from any civilization. With you is a bottle of water that has enough water to allow only one person to make it to the nearest civilization. What should you do?
Throughout our lives, we have been taught that the moral thing to do would be to give the other person the water: to sacrifice yourself for the betterment of another person. Yet if both people act morally, no one will drink and both will die. This is not a favorable outcome, but in times that are less severe, acting selflessly for the betterment of other people is encouraged.
One instance is in the story of Mah Tovu where Balaam, who is sent to curse the Israelites, blesses them after being overcome with awe.
For a long time, there was only one acceptable opinion for how to handle the “who should drink the water” problem. This opinion came from the sage Ben Patura, who taught that both travelers should drink and die so that neither one of them is responsible for the other person’s death.
This is contrasted with Rabbi Akiva’s commentary that you should put yourself in front of others when there are no other options. As previously mentioned, in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you first have to love yourself. So, the Jewish thing to do in the water scenario would be to drink the water yourself.
Of course there is a lot of controversy over an ethical scenario like this, but what do our values tell us about whether or not we should get a COVID-19 vaccine? Another teaching will help us navigate this decision.
In Shabbat 31a of the Talmud, a gentile will convert to Judaism if a rabbi can teach him the whole Torah while the gentile stands on one foot. When the gentile comes to Hillel, Hillel teaches the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it!”
When getting a vaccine, consider asking yourself whether this is good for your neighbor. If there is a line for a vaccine, going around that line, or cutting in, could hurt your neighbor if he or she was supposed to get vaccinated before you. However, when it is your turn to get vaccinated, you should do so because that helps the community.
Moreover, if an opportunity arises in which you can get vaccinated out of turn, and if you don’t do so the vaccine would go to waste, then you should take it. By stepping up to make sure the vaccine doesn’t go to waste, you help your community by not being wasteful and also by working toward the goal that everyone gets vaccinated.
Judaism promotes community. We need to have 10 people for a minyan, and we celebrate the holidays by gathering with our families. In order to ensure the longevity of these traditions, we need to make sure that we are safe while doing them. If you know that you are in the group that is able to get a vaccine according to your state or county guidelines, then, according to Jewish values, you should be signing up to get vaccinated because you need to be able to take care of yourself.
Furthermore, even once you get vaccinated, you still need to continue to take care of the rest of our community by limiting the spread of the virus. Based on Hillel’s teaching, we should still be careful when coming in contact with others. Even though you may be shielded from the effects of the virus because of your vaccination, your neighbors may not be. This is an example of helping others after you helped yourself.
No religion says to think solely about yourself. There is always a balance between the community and oneself. During this pandemic, the balance that was communal interconnectedness has been tested time and again. However, if everyone were to get the vaccine when it was made available to them, the community would be a better, healthier place, which, in the end, is all that really matters.