A sign warns people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg on April 10, 2019 in New York City. As a measles epidemic continues to spread, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a state of emergency and mandated residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg at the center of the outbreak to get vaccinated for the viral disease. Those who choose not to will risk a $1,000 fine. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Yochanan Gordon

We live in a multidimensional world where things can be perceived on varying levels. So while it seems that, on the face of it, the merits and demerits of vaccinations is the issue that is being debated, that is only the outward representation of that argument. I’d like to suggest that, at its core, the debate is far more profound. For that reason, I want to address the spiritual root of the vaccine debate.

Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel argue repeatedly throughout the pages of Shas. And while it may seem at times that the debates themselves are petty in nature, at their core they are debating an ideal: namely, at what point we perceive something as having been brought into existence — at the moment of potentiality or actuality. All of their disputes can be seen within this framework, whether it’s the order in the number of candles that we kindle every night of Chanukah, when bee honey becomes ritually impure as a liquid, whether the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees takes place on Rosh Chodesh Shevat or the 15th day, as is the view of Beis Hillel, and so on and so forth. So, while the disputes are centered on Chanukah, bee honey, and Rosh Hashanah for the Trees, there is something much more essential to life that is being debated, and that is precisely at what point something is seen as extant.

The first question we need to address is why it is so important for every healthy member of society to be vaccinated. There is a segment within society that is medically termed immunocompromised, and so, for one reason or another, they cannot receive vaccines. In order to ensure that these people do not contract any potentially harmful diseases, we need to see to it that we are immune from diseases in order not to pass them on.

What is a vaccine, essentially? We all know that by injecting, in small measure, certain diseases into the bloodstream, a healthy person generates antibodies enabling them to identify these diseases and effectively fight them to prevent them from affecting the body. So, not only can we function, healthily, with these diseases in small measure within our bloodstream, in a sense it makes us stronger and less vulnerable to these diseases.

What then is the underlying disagreement between the pro- and anti-vaccination communities? At the backdrop of this is the importance of engaging in Kiruv. Chazal state, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh.” We need to feel a personal responsibility to ensure the well-being of every Jew. The question is: at what cost?

Some see their personal safety and well-being as paramount, and their fellow’s secondary. However, if we are dealing with a healthy person, exposing him or her ever so slightly to foreign cultures and environments in order to pull a fellow Jew out of the mud will not be detrimental. To the contrary, like the vaccine, which is administered in small measures, it will create “antibodies” and allow us to more effectively combat the foreign influences.

While there is a law that states “Chayecha kodmin,” that is true only as far as whose life takes precedence, in a situation where only one person will live. However, our mandate to love a Jew as we love ourselves calls for us to put ourselves on the line and to enter into a space that makes us feel personally uncomfortable, even unsafe, if we have the ability to ultimately save another Jew.

There are elements within the yeshiva world who maintain that the vaccine debate is solely a medical one and that da’as Torah is incapable of issuing an authoritative ruling on the matter. Is it conceivable that the Torah, which G-d used as a blueprint for all of creation, is not capable of rendering a decision on any matter?

Sometimes, in order to fully understand an issue we need to look beneath the surface and understand what exactly is being discussed. We need to perhaps work on the way we, as a collective community, perceive our relationship with our fellow Jews, and then we could reassess the importance of ensuring the physical and spiritual well-being of those who are more vulnerable than we are.

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