By: Yosef Lemel | Opinions  | 

The Vaccination Debacle

There is no question that vaccinations are a positive result of the medical advances in the modern era. As a result of vaccinations, diseases such as smallpox and measles have been eradicated and have receded significantly in the U.S. respectively. However, in certain Jewish communities, measles is resurfacing due to a lack of children being vaccinated. I believe that this proliferation is the result of certain prominent religious leaders being opposed to vaccination.

The modern anti-vaccine movement began with a study published by Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet (a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal), which suggested that the combined vaccine of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) directly correlates to the development of autism in young children. He therefore urged parents and physicians not to administer the vaccine to children.

In 2010, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license by the General Medical Council of the UK because of his irresponsible research methods. As a result, The Lancet retracted the study published by Wakefield. In addition, a vast majority of the co-authors of the study withdrew their support of the findings. Credible organizations, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and World Health Organization (WHO), have confirmed the relative safety of vaccine use. Unfortunately, Wakefield’s inaccurate findings were still able to sway masses of scientifically illiterate individuals through social media, documentaries and the advocacy of pop-culture icons such as Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, both of whom virulently speak out against the use of the MMR vaccine.

Then, somehow, this became a religious issue. Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the rosh yeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and his wife, Rebbetzin Temi Kamenetsky, were persuaded that vaccines are extremely harmful to humans. Rebbetzin Kamenetsky publicly lectures against the use of vaccines. In a 2014 exploration into anti-vaxxers, the Baltimore Jewish Times quotes Rabbi Kamenetsky, saying that “vaccinations [are] the problem. It’s a hoax… It is just 'big business'.”

In 2015, Rabbi Kamenetsky turned his flawed beliefs into policy when he signed a letter prohibiting yeshivas from refusing admission to unvaccinated children. Other prominent signatories included Rabbi Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, two of the leading rabbis in Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), the largest yeshiva in the U.S. The letter claimed that vaccine use is “unavoidably unsafe.” Although the letter never explicitly stated that getting immunized is forbidden according to Torah law, statements such as these by leading rabbinic authorities have normalized this belief in parts of the ultra-Orthodox community in the U.S.

Unfortunately, this attitude led to the largest outbreak of measles in New York in the past few decades and my hometown, Monsey, has been at the center. According to the Ramapo Daily Voice, there have been at least 77 reported cases of measles in Rockland County (where Monsey is located) since September. There are a few dozen more cases confirmed within the Jewish communities of Lakewood and Brooklyn. This outbreak originated in Israel, where over 1,500 cases of measles have been reported and where a child died as a result of contracting measles. It spread to the U.S. through travelers from Israel and was then transmitted to children who were not immunized.

This is absolutely reprehensible. The loss of even one life is devastating. The Talmud states (Sanhedrin 37a), “Anyone who kills one Jew, the Torah considers it as if he destroyed the world. Anyone who saves a Jewish soul, the Torah considers it as if he saved the world.” This is how much a soul is worth in our religion. The disregard these parents showed when they failed to immunize their child is antithetical to this precept. The blame for the child’s death lies squarely on the parents for not immunizing their child.

In the case of vaccinations, Rabbi Kamenetsky is dealing with a field of knowledge of which he has little comprehension, yet, some ultra-Orthodox individuals listen to his views on vaccinations without consulting with their physician. This is a gross misinterpretation of daas Torah. Those who believe in this erroneous doctrine of daas Torah contend that the gedolei hador have a special insight into worldly matters because they use their Torah perspective to assess situations.

This view of daas Torah is an assault on human reason. It is completely irrational to suggest that Rabbi Kamenetsky knows better than the CDC, FDA, AAP and WHO when it comes to the risks of vaccine use. Yet, there are groups of people in Monsey, Lakewood and Brooklyn who blindly listen to what the gedolim preach, even when it directly contradicts facts and logic.

I believe that it is upon us, as rational human beings, to assess the extent to which we listen to these religious figures. How much influence must they be given outside the sphere of Torah?

In response to the most recent measles outbreak, the Beth Medrash Govoha recommended that its students get vaccinated. In addition, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America published a joint statement strongly urging “all parents to vaccinate their healthy children on the timetable recommended by their pediatrician.” Be that as it may, Rabbi Kamenetsky and all other rabbis who persist in their dangerous anti-vaccination beliefs must immediately retract their previous statements and rulings on vaccine use. The Agudath Israel, a major organization which represents the yeshivish ideology in America, has not officially taken a position on the vaccination debate. They must denounce the unscientific and dangerous beliefs of anti-vaxxers. Finally, rather than solely listening to a rabbi, parents should rely on professional medical advice when making health decisions for their children. If such action is not taken, lives will be put at risk.

Photo Caption: Lack of vaccines among children have led to a measles outbreak in Rockland County

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