Beth Shalom Congregation held a special event Nov. 1 on the possibility of a vaccine for COVID-19 and what Jewish law says regarding its use. Featuring Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who serves on the Science, Ethics, and Religion Advisory Committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the discussion focused on what Jewish law says about the use, or refusal, of vaccines.
Dorff began the discussion by talking about the inherent distinction between American and Jewish law, noting how while in American law people have specific rights, in Jewish law people only have duties. “When we get to Sinai,” Dorff said, regarding the story of Exodus, “we don’t get a single right. We get 613 commandments.
“We are not individuals with rights, we are members of a community with duties,” Dorff continued.
Taking this more directly into the subject of medicine, Dorff explained that while, in American law, the physical body of an individual belongs to him or herself, in Jewish law a person’s body belongs to God. As such, while under American law a person has the right to refuse a medical intervention, Dorff said, under Jewish tradition a community member has the obligation to preserve their body and life as much as they possibly can.
All of this coincides with a rabbinic ruling Dorff cited, which stated that not only are Jews allowed to use vaccines, but that Jews have a duty to use vaccines. One possible exception to this, Dorff stated, potentially involved newer vaccines, like early versions of the anthrax vaccine, whose safety and effectiveness was not as well established as something like the polio vaccine.
“My judgment is, that because this pandemic is so lethal, that we really do need to be able to trust the process once the scientists have told us that these are safe … and effective vaccines,” he said, regarding the eagerly awaited vaccine for COVID-19.
Dorff concluded that, to save the lives of themselves and others, once the Food and Drug Administration approves a COVID-19 vaccine, Jews have an obligation to use it, assuming enough is known to prevent them from being used on people who may be allergic to the vaccine.