The Goring Details of an Epidemic

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.

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