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Shabbat Parashat Vayeishev 5779

Ask the Rabbi: Shaming those who do Not Vaccinate

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Is it permitted to publicly shame those that do not vaccinate their children for measles and put people in the community at risk in order to get them to vaccinate?

 

Answer: [Presumably, some readers will find our response offensively strong and others will find it vexingly weak – this is often a sign of reasonable balance.]

Let us first summarize the medical consensus. (We do not give medical advice when there is not a consensus). Measles is a highly contagious disease that is at least unpleasant but more importantly can cause severe long-term health problems, and occasionally death. Immunization includes an extremely low chance of severe problems and normally only causes mild discomfort. It is recommended by virtually all doctors. Although the vaccination is not foolproof, its success rate in preventing contracting measles is well above 90 percent. Therefore, when almost the entire population is vaccinated, there are only a handful of cases of measles a year, and such a disease has a chance of being eradicated. When many are not vaccinated, an outbreak can occur, as has happened in Jerusalem. Then, while each individual vaccinated person is unlikely to contract measles, a certain percentage of the many exposed to it will. Children before their second dose are slightly more susceptible, and babies under a year old, who are too young to be vaccinated, are at great risk.

Halacha believes in following the instructions of doctors, whether Jewish or not, to the extent that their orders to save lives are sufficient grounds to violate Torah-level Shabbat violations (Shulchan Aruch and Rama, Orach Chayim 328:10). When there is disagreement between doctors, weight is given to both the number and the level of expertise on the various sides (see Biur Halacha ad loc.). The obligation to protect one’s health is a more severe matter than avoiding aveirot (Chulin 10a). Therefore, it is not surprising that poskim rule that one who refuses to follow doctor’s life-saving orders can be coerced to do so (Magen Avraham 328:6). The matter is even clearer when one not only endangers himself but is endangering others. If vaccination was being done almost universally, one might have the right to listen to his medical advisor (non-standard doctor or rabbi or “guru”), as the risk raised by a small number of not vaccinated people is small. But when it becomes a trend, it is dangerous, and when an area is in the midst of an outbreak (because of the prevalence of such people), the situation is grave, as is unfortunately the case in Jerusalem at the time I am writing.

In theory, then, it is justified to take steps to pressure people to vaccinate. Despite this, we at Eretz Hemdah oppose individuals taking the matter into their own hands by shaming (whether the old-fashioned ways or through social media). The precedent of condoning such behavior is extremely dangerous to society. One will shame over a medical matter; another over something religious; another for a political cause, etc. Do realize that when rebuking people for doing aveirot, one must not do so by means of shaming a person, especially publicly (Rambam, De’ot 6:8)

We are believers in steps being taken by those with responsibility and authority. In this case, public health officials, in cooperation with other government arms, should take the steps their experts deem appropriate. In many cases, intense public education is more effective than attempts at coercion, but they have the prerogative and even responsibility to the public to take punitive steps if deemed necessary.

What an individual and an “unauthorized” group may do is take steps focused on protecting themselves. At a time of an outbreak, it is legitimate to avoid contact with friends or relatives who do not vaccinate, even when it is insulting. A shul, by decision of its rabbi and officers, may decide that the danger at a given time warrants demanding of such people not to come/bring their children to shul. But intentional shaming is not the way to go about it.

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Meira bat Esther

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