The Goring Details of an Epidemic

Vaccination

I was floored. Not by the news that over 500 children in Brooklyn had developed measles. I have seen the anti-vaccine movement gain steam over the past two decades. No, I was floored that most of these children were Hasidic Jews, an insular branch of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. Why should that surprise? 

It surprised me because, while I am not an Orthodox rabbi, I am fairly conversant in Jewish medical law (Halacha) as expounded and practiced in Orthodox circles, and I know that their religious authorities are ferociously pro-medicine. The great scholars uniformly say, in the name of biblical law and the principle of pikuach nefesh, preserving life and health, it is mandatory to make full use of any and all medicine, includes vaccination.

But, of course, you might say, “Well, the Bible never mentions vaccines. In fact, the Bible rarely even alludes to medical treatment in any form.” Absolutely true, but in the quest to keep the teachings of Scripture relevant in different ages, rabbis have shown considerable creativity in applying biblical law, composed in the Iron Age, to changing and novel developments of the past 3000 years. Vaccines are a case in point. How do we know the Bible mandates vaccination? Stick with me.

Deuteronomy 22:8. “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your [flat] roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, should anyone should fall from it.” It is initially hard to see the relevance of this to vaccines, but using the interpretive principle of, Perat u-khela, you can generalize a principle of action from a specific commandment, this verse establishes the universal principal that we are liable [blood guilt] for failing to take all reasonable precautions to prevent injury and death. This verse is invoked by Jewish authorities to support seatbelt and motorcycle helmet laws. It also applies to things as simple as washing your hands before eating. And if you must wash your hands to prevent the spread of contagions, kal v’homer, all the more so, you should vaccinate yourself and your children against spreading potentially lethal diseases. 

But it’s about more than just you and your family. Exodus 21:28-29 mandates what to do about a domestic ox that gores someone to death. If the animal does it, even once, the animal is destroyed. But if the ox “has a reputation” of earlier, non-lethal gorings, then the owner’s negligence in not taking precautions rises to the level of “blood guilt,” and he, too is destroyed. So too, we have a responsibility to the community to take adequate precautions against spreading contagious diseases. Measles, polio, chicken pox, small pox, whooping cough, and flu, these are all “oxen” well known for their capacity to “gore” others. 

Which brings us back to Brooklyn. If all this is true, and Hasidic Jews make it a point of pride in their adherence to Jewish Law, how did this epidemic even happen? As far as I can tell, it is a combination of things. First, the Hasidic community is not as insular as they might seem, and many have come under the sway of Jenny McCarthy, social media, and crank medical theories. Rumor has also played its part. Claims have circulated about vaccines being made using ingredients from non-kosher animals. Not that this should matter. It was taught 1500 years ago that if a pregnant woman comes to you on Yom Kippur and says, “If I don’t eat some pork, I will die,” you should feed her a pork chop. (Yoma 82a), because “The heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10). Non-kosher ingredients are never an impediment to taking medicine. Still, the impulse to be pious to the point of silliness is a well-known phenomenon.

I suppose I could take comfort in the thought that even Orthodox Jews ignore their rabbis, but I don’t. Too much is at stake. I know this better than most. My father was crippled by polio. Thankfully, my children need never fear that, for we are a generation blessed with reliable remedies. “This is the Lord’s doing; it [should be] marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:23). 

This article was published in the Denton Record Chronicle on May 2, 2019 originally.

Sukkot – Dwelling in a House of Dreams

Our holiday of Sukkot – part harvest festival, part historical reenactment – is the holiday of insecure dreams. We are commanded to build a shelter for ourselves, but only the most flimsy, temporary shelter, to remind us of our own fragility, the transitory nature of life, and what it was like to be refugees from Egypt, with only the good will of a great power to sustain us. But then we are commanded to dwell in it. We are to welcome guests: our neighbors, the poor, and even our wandering ancestors, to be with us. And then, ideally, we sleep in it, the star visible above us. And we sleep with  the promise God made us in the desert, the promise that a more permanent home awaits us in the future, a promised land. No longer landless, stateless, we sleep knowing we are headed toward a better future. We sleep with a dream in mind before we even lay our head upon our pillow.

And knowing that, we are commanded to rejoice. Sukkot is meant to be our happiest holiday – not joyous like Passover, or riotous, like Purim, but a holiday of contentment, knowing our harvest is secure with us for the coming winter.
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Sermon from Rosh Hashanah 5778

So today I thought I’d talk about the concept of the klutz kasheh. This is a Yiddish term which literally mean a ‘klutzy question,’ or a ‘silly conundrum.’ The great Jewish tradition of grappling with silly difficulties goes back to the Talmud, where the Sages liked to pose unlikely, seemingly ridiculous problems to each other. A classic is one where someone poses the question, “A person with two heads, does he put tefillin on one head, or both?”

A favorite from medieval Jewish tradition was the question of whether, being short a tenth person, could a golem be counted in a minyan for public worship. These are indeed silly questions, pointless questions, but there are surprisingly profound implications to them. In each of these, the underlying question is, what makes a person? Who is a Jew?

This year a colleague posted online this question. God forbids Jews to write or complete a task during Shabbat or a major holiday, yet on Rosh HaShanah, we say that God “Writes” in the Book of Life of RH and “Seals it” on YK. Is God bound by the rules God imposes on us?

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I’ll Follow the Sun (with apologies to Lennon and McCartney)

Did you hear the one about the fellow who stayed up all night wondering where the sun went? It finally dawned on him.

The sun. It’s easy to take it for granted, even to resent it, living in Texas. But of course it’s a start point for everything on this planet that interests us. Without the sun constantly bombarding the surface of our planet with energy, life on earth would not have been able to defy the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and evolve into the magnificent diversity we see and know today. Think of the things you don’t take for granted: trees? No sun, no trees. Kittens? No sun, no kittens. Hawaii? No sun, no Hawaii. No us.

Which brings me to a something Jewish. Jews bless the sun – the birkat-ha-Hammah. Many Jews are aware we have a blessing for the moon. It’s well known because it’s recited once a month. The blessing for the sun, by contrast, is off our radar screen because it’s only recited once every 28 years. That makes it a once, twice, or with excellent timing, a thrice in a lifetime event. It’s the Halley’s Comet of Jewish prayer.

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Spiritual Grandeur

I have this theory. It goes something like this: You can gauge the way people feel about God by the way they feel about inclement weather. As for me, I appreciate storms. Windy days invigorate me, and volatile weather — lightning storms, torrential rains, blizzards — enthrall me. Even though they make me uncomfortable or frighten me, I am moved by the display of power; storms remind me of my relatively humble place in the cosmos.

Others, I know, dislike violent weather. They have a marked preference for moderate, serene, and placid climates. A few people I know go even further – if it were up to them, nature would remain at a constant 72 degrees with a 3 MPH wind.

And I suspect, if I were to do a poll, I would find that people feel about the same way about of a disturbance in God as they do about a disturbance in the weather. For those of us moved by the power of nature, the idea that God becomes righteously indignant at the behavior of people does not trouble or offend us. On the other hand, I imagine that those who are disturbed by intemperate weather are likewise uncomfortable with the idea that God get angry.

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Signs and Wonders in Denton County

A Christian vandal? Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet Congregation Kol Ami has had to deal with just that. In response to the ongoing crisis in New Orleans and Alabama, like churches and synagogues around the nations, CKA went into tzedakah (“charity”) hyper-drive. As part of that, we posted a new message on our roadside marquee board in front of the synagogue:

CHARITY SAVES FROM DEATH  –  PROVERBS

TZEDAKAH HELP ALA MISS LA.

Past postings on our board have included such zingers as UNDER THE SAME MANAGEMENT FOR 3500 YEARS and HAPPY CHALLAH DAYS, so I thought what could be more innocuous then a Scriptural quote? Yet Monday morning when I came in to help deliver a load of charitable donations to Jewish Family Services for distribution, I found the sign had been altered to read:

CHRIST SAVES FROM DEATH

SHAZAM.

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And after the fire, a small still voice (I Kings 19)

The German Philosopher Ludwig Wittenstein declared, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” So what are we to make of something that leaves us speechless? Something so incomprehensible, so alien, that words fail us? Such an otherworldly event seems to have overtaken America on Tuesday when, in coordinated attacks, suicide terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, crashed airplanes filled with travelers, and massacred as yet untold numbers of innocent people. And to add to the horror (is it possible at this point?) is to realize how the killers actually used, not only themselves, but also many of their victims as weapons to kill others. It seems otherworldly in its evil, truly diabolical in the root sense of the word – the work of demonic forces.

On reflection, However, these actions are all too human. When my wife said to me, “It’s like something out of a Schwarzenegger movie,” I was shaken out my dumb horror. Of course, as Hollywood shows us in movie after movie, human imagination can conjure up such a plan, and human ingenuity can make it real. The sobering truth is, infernal fires burn brightest in the human heart. Alas, poor humanity.

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