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Faith and the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘I’m a member of a community with duties’

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a theologian and ethicist specializing in medical ethics, talks about what we owe each other when it comes to being vaccinated.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff. Courtesy photos

(RNS) — Nearly 9% of Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and with the announcement of a third vaccine in Johnson & Johnson’s new single-dose version, the United States’ campaign is showing promise despite initial stumbles. But more than a third of Americans still say they have no intention of receiving the vaccine or are unsure. 

It’s well-known that faith leaders can change minds about public health measures. “Congregants are more likely to trust not only their leaders but also those who share their faith, particularly people from their own tradition,” wrote Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Baylor University researcher, in a Religion News Service op-ed last year.

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the former CEO of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and now a master’s candidate at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, is interviewing a series of faith leaders about their traditions’ views on public health and vaccination, and this vaccination effort. You can find the entire series here.

This week Schonfeld talks with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Dorff is a theologian and ethicist specializing in medical ethics.

How is health viewed in Judaism?

One of the ways I put it is that there’s been a virtual love affair between Judaism and medicine for the last 2,000 years. Many rabbis have also been physicians — Maimonides is probably the most famous, but there were many, many others. There are fewer rabbi MDs now than in times past, but in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 21, when somebody has assaulted somebody else, among the remedies that the assailant has to provide is, “He must surely heal him.” From this, human beings got permission to engage in healing. It’s not taking away God’s prerogative — quite the opposite. 

In the Torah, quarantine is used to prevent communicable diseases, in Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Leviticus. In the 18th century, when Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine, the question was, should you take it? The answer was yes, you should, because we owe it to each other to prevent diseases not only for ourselves but others.

So there’s a very strong sense in the Jewish tradition that we ought to, to get involved in medicine, both to prevent disease and to cure it both on the clinical level and on the public health level.

Why does that figure so strongly in our faith?

Well, I’m very proud to be American for all kinds of reasons, but the American side of us is that we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights. And among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So I, as an American, I’m an individual with rights.

The central Jewish story is at Sinai, we got 613 commandments. So as a Jew, I’m a member of a community with duties. As an American, I’m an individual with rights. If I get up in the morning and I’m an individual with rights, then the world owes me. But if I get up in the morning and I’m a member of a community with duties, then I owe the world.

In the American understanding, furthermore, going back at least to the 1990 Nancy Beth Cruzan decision at the Supreme Court, I own my own body. As long as I’m 18 or older, I can refuse any kind of medical intervention. I cannot demand it, but I can refuse it. Whereas in the Jewish tradition, my body belongs to God. I have a fiduciary relationship to God to take care of my body during my life as if I were renting an apartment.

How can faith leaders help communicate this sense of duty to those who are hesitant to take the vaccine?

The first thing is public education. This vaccine, unlike the smallpox vaccine or the flu vaccine, has no trace of the virus. Even those vaccines you should take, because we have proven that those vaccines prevent very serious diseases. But they contain forms of the viruses that they’re trying to prevent. This one is not that at all; it works with our DNA. 

Second, we need to take what public health officials are saying seriously. We need to wear masks whenever we’re outside of our homes. We need to publicly distance, right? We need to wash our hands frequently. We need to do all those things that these public health officials are saying to us, and we need to get vaccinated when it’s our turn.

We hear about “jumping the line” — people who are not yet eligible getting vaccinated or attempting to get vaccinated. Could you address that from a Jewish perspective?

I mean, it goes back to “Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” from the Book of Deuteronomy. There is a line because there is a shortage, and the Jewish tradition knows about allocation of scarce resources. Namely, how do you decide among the poor: Who gets what and who pays for it? Jewish communities through the ages were not rich. What emerged in the Jewish tradition is an order of who’s most vulnerable, who are the people that have to be helped first?

That is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tried to do. We need to understand that the most vulnerable are the ones that really need to have that vaccine first. We need to be able to wait in line, even though it’s scary. 

The mental health ramifications of COVID-19 have affected everybody. What does Judaism teach about managing the risks?

Genesis, Chapter 2, says it’s not good for a person to live alone. We are indeed social animals, as Aristotle put it, and a large part of the mental health piece of this pandemic is that people are feeling very depressed, very isolated. That has led to increased alcoholism, increased family violence. We have seen a real uptick in the need for clinical care. If we did not have Zoom, if we did not have FaceTime, this disease would have been much, much worse.

That said, we should take advantage of the fact that you’re isolated at home. Think about people that you’ve known in your life or that you haven’t talked to in a while. It will brighten your day to get in touch with them, and it will really serve to keep you mentally healthy. In the Jewish tradition, that is part and parcel of what it means to take care of yourself.