(RNS) At the Waldorf Early Childhood Center in Santa Monica, Calif., 68 percent of the children had not been vaccinated because of “personal belief exemptions.”
Yes, the anti-vaccination stance is about belief, about faith — in the utterly unreasonable.
Look at who has jumped on the anti-vaccination bandwagon. Sen. Rand Paul — a doctor! — delayed his children’s immunizations because of “many tragic cases of normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He believes that parents should have the right to decide for themselves whether to vaccinate their children.
So, apparently, does New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
What about the Jews? Take the most publicly Jewish actress in Hollywood, Mayim Bialik, the title character of the NBC sitcom “Blossom.” She observes Shabbat, keeps kosher and is devoted to Israel. She is also a neuroscientist, with a Ph.D. from UCLA.
But even this prominent actress and woman of science has refused to vaccinate her two sons. (Irony: She donated money to the Israel Defense Forces for armored vests. What about medical armor for her own kids?)
Does vaccination pose some medical risks? If it does, then the numbers are infinitesimally small. Are those risks worth taking? Yes — because the more people who are vaccinated, the less likely that measles will spread.
Here’s the Jewish take on all this:
- To heal someone — or yourself — is a mitzvah (a religious obligation). Yes, some religious people believe that you should put all of your faith in God as the Ultimate Healer. But Jews believe that we should imitate God in the act of healing. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Medicine is prayer in the form of a deed. The act of healing is the highest form of the imitation of God.”
- You’re not allowed to endanger yourself needlessly. The Shulchan Arukh, the classic code of Jewish law, says: “Wherever there is a potentially life-endangering pitfall or obstacle, it is a positive commandment to remove it, to be on guard against it and to take very good care in the matter, as the Torah says: “Guard yourself and guard your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).
- The availability of medical care is a public good. The Talmud says that you cannot live in a city where there is no physician.
How about all those people who believe that the refusal to vaccinate their children falls into the general category of parental rights?
Judaism does not believe in parental rights. It believes in parental responsibility. The Talmud says Jewish parents are obligated to teach their children three things: Torah, a trade, and how to swim. “Swimming” is a metaphor. Parents need to teach their children how to avoid dangerous situations.
Like, for example, infectious diseases.
Judaism does not believe in radical individualism. Rather, it believes in communal responsibility. We are responsible for one another. There is a story in the Talmud about two men in a rowboat. One starts drilling under his seat. The other protests loudly. But the “driller” responds: “I am only drilling underneath my seat.” In society, when we drill under our own seat, everyone drowns.
That is why the “it’s my kid and I will do what I want to” argument is bogus. As a society, we are all in this together. As Ben Boychuk, an associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, writes: “Your right to refuse to vaccinate your children ends where my children’s right to avoid needless exposure to infection begins.”
If you don’t care about your own child — please, at the very least, care about mine.
In 1913, the Hebrew-Yiddish poet Zalman Shneur wrote these prophetic words: “The Middle Ages are approaching.” He was writing about Europe’s coming descent into savagery. There are days when I, too, sense that the Middle Ages are approaching: the rise of anti-Semitism, the rise of violent Muslim fanaticism.
But those are not the only forms a new Middle Ages might take. When people reject science, when they rely on fear rather than facts, we are inching toward a medieval past.
That is the duty of all modern religious people: to name the coming tide of medievalism, and to fight against it.
(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the editor of “Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens.”)
YS/AMB END SALKIN