Jews and the Coronavirus vaccine

January 25, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Can a Jew refuse the vaccine? Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

REFUSING THE VACCINE

Q. Does a Jew have a religious right to reject the Covid-19 vaccine?

A. If they decide not to be vaccinated it could endanger both himself and other people.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden said, “Once the doctor recognises a definite need to administer a tested treatment, a patient, even if he objects, must submit under all circumstances. The matter does not depend on the consent of the patient since he is not free to destroy himself” (Mor U’k’tzia to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 328).

Note that the rabbi says, “Once the doctor recognises a definite need”. This excludes being swayed by rumours and unscientific opinions.

RELIGIOUS DUTY & PLANTING TREES

Q. Why does the Jewish National Fund say that it is a religious duty to plant trees in Israel? Why not say that the land needs trees without attaching religious language to the activity?

A. They say it is a religious duty for the simple reason that it is. The commandment of “yishuv ha’aretz”, “settling the land”, includes planting trees.

“Dwell in the land” (Gen. 26:2, Psalm 37:3, etc.) is understood as saying, “Put up a dwelling in the land of Israel and also plant and sow” (Gen. R. 64).

This and other rabbinic passages speak of fruit trees, but Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin pointed out that it is self-evident that “since trees clear the air, improve the landscape and benefit the land in other ways, their planting too is part and parcel of the general religious precept to settle the land of Israel”.

VERSES IN THE TORAH

Q. How many verses are there in the Torah? How do we get this information without laboriously adding them up?

A. There are 4845 verses in the Torah.

If you look up a Hebrew Chumash you find the details (in Hebrew) at the end of each of the five books. Thus at the end of D’varim we are told that the book has 955 verses, 11 parshiyyot (sidrot) and 34 chapters.

We have previously explained that the chapter numbers were introduced by Christians, not by Jews, and the chapter divisions do not always define a unit of material.

For example, Genesis 2:1-3 really belongs to the first chapter and concludes the story of the six days of creation.

FOLLOWING ORDERS

Q. What is the Jewish approach to the “I was only following orders” excuse used by soldiers (and others) who commit abuses?

A. In Judaism the first instance of the problem arises in regard to Abraham, to whom God says, “Your descendants will be strangers in a strange land and they will enslave and oppress them (but) the people who enslave them will I judge” (Gen. 15:1-14).

The question is, if the suffering is ordained by God, why should He punish the Egyptians for bringing it about? Couldn’t the Egyptians retort, “I had no say in the matter”?

Maimonides (Hil’chot T’shuvah 6:5) says that there is a difference between the individual and the nation.

Though God said that the nation would oppress the Israelites, individual Egyptians could have opted out of the evil-doing, even though resisting orders might have made life difficult for them.

Nachmanides asks a different question: “Why did the Egyptians persecute the Israelites – because of their own evil policy, or because they knew this was a Divine destiny? If it was because of their own policy, they had no right to blame God.”

The Nachmanides view seems to say that if the troops acted cruelly because it gave them pleasure, they deserve blame; if it was merely because of orders from above, the higher officers who gave the orders should be blamed.

According to the Maimonides approach, if the troops could have refused to act, regardless of the difficulties this might have caused them, they should have opted out and left the framers of official policy to face the music.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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