By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Imagine, Heaven forbid, the following headlines:
“Measles Outbreak in Lakewood, N.J.”
There is a group of people attempting to form a coalition that could quite likely cause these headlines to appear in the very near future. According to the Center for Disease Control each year 146,000 people worldwide die of measles – most of them children who live where people do not vaccinate.
This week, an email went out asking people in Lakewood to join a “coalition” that would attempt to force Lakewood schools to enroll children whose parents refuse to vaccinate their children. The email further states “this coalition depends on a collective voice and will not be launched until we reach a minimum of 250 families. If you live in Lakewood and have made a decision not to vaccinate your children, we encourage you to please take a few moments to sign up . . .”
It is most disturbing that people are trying to make this happen in Lakewood, because as was mentioned at the levaya of Rebbitzen Rishel Kotler a”h – she was at the forefront of helping people who could not afford vaccines!
I am afraid that the coalition could reduce the support of Torah Mosdos. If people find out that Bnei Torah in Lakewood denigrate the views of leading doctors and pediatricians it could lead to an erosion of financial support for the Torah Mosdos in Lakewood.
Many of the pediatricians in Lakewood have attempted to address this mistaken view, but to no avail. What is necessary is for the leading Rabbonim in Lakewood to put a stop to this madness.
GRAVE CHILLUL HASHEM
The very existence of such a coalition in the heart of a Torah community is a grave Chillul Hashem. The Torah tells us in Parshas VaEschanan (Dvarim 4:6), “ki hi chochmaschem uvinaschem l’einei ha’amim” that the Torah is knowledge and wisdom in the eyes of the gentiles. The B’chor Shor gives the example of a doctor who prescribes a bitter medication to a Choleh. He will take it no matter how bitter.
This group is placing at risk tens of thousands of children in the Lakewood school system – not only risking measles, but also mumps, rubella, polio, and whooping cough. These are very serious diseases, and are all easily preventable.
EMPLOYS PRO-CHOICE TERMINOLOGY
Shockingly, this group has employed the language of the “pro-choice” pro-abortion movement in order to lessen the impact of what they are proposing: Ignoring the advice of all doctors, pediatricians, and the Centers for Disease Control. The group even claims to have some Rabbinic backing.
VIEW OF GEDOLIM
The fact is that Gedolei HaPoskim have encouraged vaccinations and have even labelled them obligatory (See Psakof Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg Shlita – Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l’s son-in-law). Rav Elyashiv, zt’l had labelled opposition to vaccines as dangerous to Klal Yisroel, along with the Alternative Medicine movement.
Gedolim have written that where there is concern for an epidemic, vaccination is obligatory. (See Minchas Tzvi, siman 9, and Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, zt’l, in Tzitz Eliezer, and Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, shlita).
In Teves of 5745 (winter 1984–1985), the Steipler Gaon was asked about a case where the measles vaccine was apparently problematic. He advised them to make sure that the next batch was problem-free and instructed them to take the vaccine (Orchos Rabbeinu, p. 350).
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l (Shulchan Shlomo 329:1, 2) writes that if from a sociological perspective people are not rushing to get the vaccination as soon as possible, then it is not considered enough of a danger to warrant Shabbos violation in getting the vaccine. He writes that this is the case even if there is an actual danger. We see clearly that his view is that one should definitely be vaccinated. This was also the view of Rav Shmuel Auerbach zt”l.
How effective is the vaccine? With two shots, the efficacy rate for the MMR vaccine reaches 97%.
THE SHEER NUMBER OF MITZVOS INVOLVED IN VACCINATING
The overwhelming percentage of Rabbonim and Poskim would tell you (but check yourself) that vaccinations involve the fulfillment of a number of Torah mitzvos, aside from the basic mitzvah of v’nishmartem me’od benafshosaichem. We should also make our best efforts not to allow misinformation and fraud to affect crucial decisions in our lives.
- The mitzvah of ‘hashavas aveidah’:
The verse in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object, with the words, “V’hasheivoso lo,” “and you shall return it to him.” The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.” For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “V’hasheivoso lo.” In other words, this verse is the source for the mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is to this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 325. This is certainly the case with vaccinations, because vaccinations save lives.
- The mitzvah of Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa:
‘There is a negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood— “Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa” (Vayikra 19:16). This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam. When people get sick and chance death because of our inaction, we are violating the commandment of “Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa.”
- The mitzvah of ‘Lo Suchal L’hisalem.’
There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of hashavas aveidah, and that is the verse in Devarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.” The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, in his HeEmek She’eilah, refers to this mitzvah as well.
- The mitzvah of ‘V’chai Achicha Imach’:
The She’iltos (She’ilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metzia 62a, understands the words in Vayikra (25:36), “v’chai achicha imach,” “and your brother shall live with you,” to indicate an obligation to save others with you. The Netziv in his HeEmek She’eilah understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. He writes that one must exert every effort to save his friend’s life, until it becomes a matter of pikuach nefesh for himself. The Netziv’s position would certainly advocate that vaccinations are obligatory, even if it involves a slight danger — which in modern times has been virtually eliminated.
- The mitzvah of ‘V’ahavta L’rei’acha Kamocha’:
The Ramban, in Toras HaAdam Sha’ar HaSakanah (pp. 42–43), understands the verse of “And love thy neighbor as yourself” as a directive to save our peers from medical danger as well. We thus have a total of six Torah mitzvos involved in vaccinating our children.
VIEW OF SOME RABBIS
What about the rabbinic views that there may be substance to the anti-vaxxer view? Carefully researching the data behind a halachic question can be daunting at times. Occasionally, though rarely, the background information behind a question may not be sufficiently researched because the posek relied upon someone else, who did not properly weigh the issue or evidence. This is clearly the case regarding vaccinations.
In recent years, we have seen this happen when some poskim have reversed their rulings on the proper berachah for cashews; whether bran is considered animal food; and whether people can distinguish between pasteurized and unpasteurized wine. Our leading Gedolim in Eretz Yisroel have supported vaccinations. Even if some rabbis negate this idea we must still follow the opinions of Gedolei Torah (speak to Rav Dovid Morgenstern shlita about Rav Elyashiv’s unequivocal view) particularly here when their view concurs with that of the medical world.
Leading Gedolim with whom this author has consulted in recent months — Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and a leading Gadol in the United States — have said that when someone has done the research and is sure that the background information behind a p’sak is faulty, there is an obligation to respectfully publicize the correct information, which is what is being attempted here in this article.
The Lakewood email further states that the coalition, “will also be available to help non-vaccinating parents in Lakewood in any area we feel we can, as well as to provide support of ‘strength in numbers.’”
HOW DID THIS BEGIN?
The very existence of this email points to the inroads of cultural influences that the world-wide anti-vaxx movement has made even in some of our Torah communities.
How did all of this madness begin?
In 1998, a now delicensed British physician named Andrew Wakefield released a paper claiming to have linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to the onset of autism. Later it was revealed that he had secretly received over $700,000 in fees for his views from a lawyer wishing to file lawsuits.
Since then, no other scientist was ever able to match Wakefield’s findings. In 2010, an ethics review board found that Wakefield had falsified the data in his report. The paper was retracted and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked.
According to researchers who have traced the origins of the anti-vaxx movement, one of the leading advocates of Wakefield’s views in the United States is a former model. One of her books even has a foreword from Wakefield himself.
She believes that her son has autism, and is a leading voice in this country equating vaccines with autism. She further claims that alternative medicine has cured her son’s disorder. She does all of this with no medical evidence. Nonetheless, her views have somehow influenced members of the Torah community.
This is very sad because vaccines have caused previously lethal diseases to disappear from society only to now re-appear in this country. Vaccines have saved countless lives. Whooping cough alone causes close to 200,000 deaths per year worldwide.
WE ARE ALL TRAVELLERS
The fact is that, in modern times, we are all one or two relationships away from people who are world-travelers, which makes our susceptibility to these illnesses so much greater.
The Council on Foreign Relations has released an interactive map which shows the catastrophic outcome of communities that do not vaccinate.
The interactive map gives a birds-eye view of global outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and whooping cough from 2008-2014.
Measles and whooping cough are increasing in the United States and the United Kingdom because of the anti-vaccination movement.
ARE THERE RISKS?
Yes, there are some very rare side-effects. And it is true that some people cannot be vaccinated because of allergies or other health conditions. But that just means that it is even more crucial to vaccinate in order to create what experts call “herd immunity.”
THE SHACH’S VIEW
What about the issue that there will invariably be people with allergic and or other negative reactions to vaccinations? The language of the Shach (Y.D. 336:1) is informative. He writes that a doctor should not say, “What do I need this anguish for if I err and unintentionally kill a patient?” One could perhaps extrapolate from the words of the Shach that we should do whatever we can to ensure that the population is protected through proper vaccination. Especially now, as poskim have pointed out – where the dangers have been reduced to a near zero rate.
NEED TO PROTECT OUR CHILDREN AND OTHERS
This erroneous view that undermines our children’s safety cannot be allowed to gain traction. Please be vocal in speaking to our Yeshivos, our Bais Yaakovs, our Rabbonim and our doctors. The growing problem of no vaccinations is not inconsequential. It is a problem of which the pediatricians in Lakewood are begging for our assistance. This is also a time for the general community to speak out as well. Otherwise, we cannot in good conscience say, (Dvarim 21:7), “Yadeinu lo shafchu es hadam hazeh v’eineinu lo ra’u.”
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org