Why Vaccination is a Jewish Thing To Do


A recent report out of California informs us that a Whooping Cough epidemic continues to grow in the state, with more than 3.400 reported cases so far this year, already topping 2013’s totals.

The health department reports that two-thirds of the people hospitalized have been children four months or younger, and two infant deaths have been reported. Infants, who are too young to be immunized, are most vulnerable to the highly infectious bacterial disease.

“Preventing severe disease and death in infants is our highest priority,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the health department, told NBC. “We urge all pregnant women to get vaccinated. We also urge parents to vaccinate infants as soon as possible.”

This comes on the heels of an announcement from the federal government that measles cases in the United States have reached a 20-year-high, largely because of the growing resistance to vaccinations.

This is one of those highly unfortunate, and actually rather rare, scenarios in which the truly tragic intersects with the truly preventable. The death of these children is the very essence of tragedy, evidence of intrinsic unfairness of life. And yet, these children didn’t die because of insurmountable forces like food scarcity or war, but instead because a growing minority of parents decided to ditch the very obvious scientific proof about the necessity of vaccinations for their children, all at the expense of everyone’s else’s’ children.

The way immunizations work is that they are dependent on most members of a community to be protected from diseases in order to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak. This way those who are not eligible for the vaccines, including infants, pregnant women or others with compromised immune systems, are protected from the disease. This is called “community immunity” or “herd immunity” and Vaccines.gov has a great inforgraph explaining it.

Okay, so why can’t we convince people vaccinate then, despite all the evidence for it and the devastating outcome of the anti-vaxxer movement? A recent study by political science professor Brendan Nyhan found that it is nearly impossible to convince anti-vaxxers to change their mind through education. He sent a mix of leaflets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other official groups to anti-vaxxers, including one stating that there is no evidence that vaccinations cause autism, another about the dangers of the diseases that vaccinations immunize us from, another featuring photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases, and a dramatic story about an infant who almost died of measles. None of them worked.

Nyhan’s conclusion: “Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention. Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive. More study of pro-vaccine messaging is needed.”

He told the New Yorker that he thinks the key is to find a non-ideological message, one that promotes vaccinations without refuting claims made by anti-vaxxers, though he worries it might be too late for this.

Others are more optimistic about the power of fear to reform the “mushy middle of vaccine-hesitant people who are separate from the hardcore anti-vaxxers,”, as Jessica Grose writes over at Slate. She says pediatricians still have a lot of sway, and are key in the fight to reverse the anti-vaccination phenomenon.

I think the difficulty of convincing anti-vaxxers of the facts is connected to a larger cultural force at play here, one that privileges children and individualistic attitudes. As Lisa Miller both directly and indirectly pointed out in her New York Magazine article about whether or not ethical parenting is possible, parents these days operate under the belief that they need to do whatever it takes to help their children succeed. They do this with little concern about how it affects other kids or contributes to the escalating unfairness and inequality growing around us.

Anti-vaxxers are not so different. They are so concerned about what could (even though it won’t) happen to their kid, that they ignore the larger implications for the communities they live in. Jewish parents are no different, and a growing number of them, inside the Orthodox community and without, are foregoing vaccinations as well.

Listen, I’m a mother, I get the instinct to want to help your kid get ahead, even at the expense of others. The fact is, we all have those selfish instincts, so the trick is finding some a way, a system bigger than our individual lives, to help us resist them. Religion, as it happens, can function this way, whether as a system of beliefs, a community or both.

No wonder then that Judaism, which is very concerned with the sanctity of life, can be interpreted as being definitively pro-vaccine. (I’ve written about this before, and rarely recycle old content as such, but it bears repeating in this context.) According to Rabbi Goldie Miligram, Judaism “across the board, within every denomination, aspires to life for those born into this world.” Jewish bioethics has long interpreted Deuteronomy 4:15, “Greatly guard your souls,” as a commandment to protect ourselves from disease. Reb Nachman of Breslov, who died in 1810 of tuberculosis before there was a vaccine for it, wrote: “One must be very very careful about the health of children…One must inoculate every baby against smallpox before one-fourth (3 months) of the year, because if not, it is like spilling blood (murder).”

I don’t expect contemporary parents to hop on the vaccination wagon because of what Rabbi Nachman said two hundred years ago. But I do hope that we can find inspiration from somewhere, be it in our tradition or something else bigger than ourselves and our families, to start thinking more like a community again.

Your Stories

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  • "This holiday we take for ourselves,
 no longer silent servers behind the curtain, 
but singers of the seder,
 with voices of gladness,
 creating our own convocation,
 and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."E.M. Broner

  • "The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."Rabbi Leora Kaye

  • "The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."Rabbi Arthur Green

  • "To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

  • "Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan

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  • "Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."Rabbi Rachel Ain

  • "“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

  • "I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."Rabbi Paul Jacobson

  • "Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."Rabbi Yosef Blau

  • "Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."Rabbi Sharon Brous

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  • "This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."Rabbi Laura Geller

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