From the desk of Rabbi Howald

A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald
On April 9thof this year, the Commissioner of Health in the city of New York issued an order declaring a public health emergency because of an epidemic of measles cases in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. The order was precipitated by more than 250 cases of measles among residents of Williamsburg, largely restricted to the Orthodox Jewish community. As a result of this outbreak, the Commissioner ordered all previously unvaccinated persons living in Williamsburg to immediately obtain the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The mayor later indicated that those who refused to take the vaccine for themselves or their children, would face the risk of fines of up to $1,000 and orders preventing them from attending school or going to other places of public association.
Some in the Jewish community have claimed that orders mandating vaccinations like the MMR violate their religious freedom. For instance, three rabbis affiliated with Agudath Israel of America, an Haredi [1] Orthodox movement, recently issued a booklet in which they claimed that although “one may follow the opinion of most doctors and choose to vaccinate his children, the individual who has done his research has the obligation to act according to his knowledge. If his research had led him to understand that the risks of vaccinations are greater than its benefits, and particularly when his view is supported by many medical doctors and researchers, the commandment of ‎וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם מְאֹ֖ד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם (“For your own sake, therefore, be most careful” Deut. 4:15 WTT), obligates him to shield his children from vaccines.” Based on this letter and other considerations, some parents in the Haredi community refused to allow their children to receive the MMR.
In contrast, most authorities in the Jewish community over the centuries have embraced vaccines and the public health benefits they provide. Reasoning that pekuach nefesh, the obligation to preserve life, takes precedence over almost all other laws, the overwhelming number of Jewish authorities have ruled that vaccinations are appropriate and encouraged. In reaching that conclusion, many cite the greatest medieval interpreter of Jewish tradition, Maimonides, who ruled almost a thousand years ago that “God created drugs and compounds and gave us the intelligence necessary to discover their medicinal properties; we must use them in warding off illness and disease.”
Twenty years ago, based on this authority, the Reform movement decided that, if exemptions to vaccination requirements are granted to those to whom vaccines pose a medical risk, Jewish tradition does not object to compulsory immunization against disease. In 2005, the Conservation movement decided that, except for valid medical reasons, unvaccinated children can properly be denied admission to Jewish day schools. The modern Orthodox movement has reached the same conclusion, strongly urging all parents to vaccinate their healthy children as recommended by their medical professionals. Even Agudath Israel of America, responding to the booklet mentioned above, recently issued a strong letter affirming the value of vaccination, affirming that: “Countless rabbinical figures and leaders, including leading rabbis in the Agudath Israel movement and doctors serving these communities, have repeatedly encouraged vaccination in the strongest possible terms.”
Based on traditional Jewish texts, the Reform movement has ruled that vaccines qualify as proven remedies and constitute a religious obligation. Other movements have been equally emphatic in urging vaccination in response to diseases that pose a public health risk. Those who claim otherwise base their decision, not on Jewish law, but on considerations outside our tradition. Considering the ongoing outbreak of measles in New York City, those who are guided by Jewish tradition and law will insure that they and their children receive the vaccinations deemed appropriate and necessary by their doctors before exposing others to the risk of communicable diseases.
Rabbi Michael D. Howald