“To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate – That is the Question.”
In his play, Hamlet, William Shakespeare made the line famous, “To be or not to be…”. The great question facing most Americans today is whether to vaccinate, or not, against the Covid-19 virus. Before giving a spiritual, pastoral answer to this dilemma, I first want to summarize the description of the landscape surrounding this conundrum within this brief article. Since the beginning of this global pandemic, the Covid virus has literally brought out the best and the worst of humanity. This issue, as with just about every other issue, has become highly dramatized and politicized in and by the media. Social media has not helped this situation either, it has only made it worse. It has gotten to the point, that no matter where one stands on the issue, you are damned if you do or damned if you don’t; and inevitably someone around you will take offense in disagreement over your choice either way on the matter. Gone are the days of civil disagreements. Today, if someone disagrees with you, you are villainized and hated by your opposition. We can go even farther back to the fall of 2016, after the Presidential elections, remember all the coverage of the inability of family celebrations of Thanksgiving? The effects of the political climate deteriorated to the level where most every family in the United States was impacted. For the subsequent four years virtually every holiday season saw families torn apart and unable to even sit at the table together. Remember reading all the advice columns on how to interact with aunts and uncles, parents and adult children who differed on politics? It is sad to see that the condition has not improved and now Covid has only contributed to the polarizing of American society.
Now, we turn our attention to the issue at hand, the choice to vaccinate or not. I will answer this in context of a Messianic rabbi serving a Messianic Jewish community, within our relatively small Messianic movement worldwide. As Messianic Jews, we are all too familiar with being marginalized. By nature, our very existence stirs up controversy. Many Messianic biblical commentators have paraphrased Rav Shaul’s words in 1 Cor. 4, to describe the survival of the Messianic Jew:
it seems to me that God has put us, the
emissaries, [Messianic Jews] on
display last of all—like men sentenced to death. For we have become a spectacle
to the world, both to angels and to people. We are fools for Messiah’s sake,
but you are wise in Messiah! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored,
but we are dishonored! To this very hour we are both hungry and thirsty,
dressed in rags and mistreated and homeless. We toil, working with our own
hands. When we are cursed, we bless. When we are persecuted, we endure. When we
are slandered, we speak kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the dregs
of all things—even to this moment. (1 Cor. 4:9-13).
We have chosen our lot, and most of us have counted the cost with our decision to follow Yeshua of Nazareth. As difficult as that naturally is, it not as unbearable as when your opponent comes from your own mishpocha. We all know what Yeshua warned, “…and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matt. 10:36). However, my hermeneutical understanding, and I would venture to say most of our understanding of this pesuk is referring to our literal family members who are not born-again believers in the Messiah. Unfortunately, we are coming to learn very quickly that we must reevaluate our own exegesis and expand our definition of “mishpocha”. It is now our spiritual family within our own Messianic congregations. With the onset of the global pandemic, we now see that another virus has infected the Body of Messiah, and it isn’t Covid. The Jewish element of the Body of Messiah is suffering from the same acute case of שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם “sinat chinam”, the same dysfunction we are witnessing in society in general.
The Messianic Jewish movement has reflected the same behavior as the wider gentile world when it comes to the divisions over Covid-19. Opinions are broad on the topic of this pandemic, if it can even be described this way; some would take exception. To some in our movement it is a serious pandemic to others it is nothing but a conspiracy, a “plan-demic”; and for others it is anything in between. Regardless, of how one feels about it, many are frightened less of the virus itself, but more scared to even share their opinion about it! This condition has considerably affected the communal life within the Messianic synagogue as well. Speaking for myself, as a rabbi, I can say with certainty that while most laymen have tremendous opinions on the subject of Covid, little if any of them understand what it is like to be in the seat where the buck stops, and the leaders’ decisions can impact the health and well-being of every member of the kehillah, from the 90 year-old Holocaust survivor, to the infant who just had his bris, both those in perfect health, and those who suffer terrible conditions. Lots of people have lots of opinions, but it is usually based on their own personal perspective with little to no consideration of how their actions, opinions, denunciations of those they disagree with affect others. A critical spirit has infected the Messianic movement and this essay is a word of warning to all of us.
It has been almost one year since the Governor of our State issued orders requiring all Ohioans to wear a mask in all public places. Only one week before that order was issued in the summer of 2020, I and my board had made our own decision that we would require the same policy at our synagogue. We made our decision, not out of fear, but in consideration for every one of our sheep, even those whom we knew were fighting major life-threatening conditions such as cancer, of whom several were already getting radiation, and chemo therapy. We had no idea at that time how this decision would have such a ripple effect. Within one week I had several letters on my desk from families who were offended by this decision and immediately withdrew their membership (without even a discussion), all at the same time! The angry tones of the letters and the amount of kvetching was tangible. One would think that we as a board had unilaterally decided to burn down our own synagogue by the way many in our community were behaving. However, others were grateful and expressed their appreciation and agreement with the Board’s decision. This reminded me that again, when it comes to this issue, you are “damned if you do or damned if you don’t.” We cannot please everyone. The decision over the mask though was only the beginning.
Now, we all face another decision, to vaccinate ourselves and our children or not. As soon as word came out that vaccines were coming, I braced myself for what I knew was about to come: additional controversies and rhetoric, especially on social media. What I now see happening among the flock are sometimes vicious responses to anyone who disagrees with a perspective on the vaccine. Some believe it is a “godsend”, while others believe it is the “mark of the beast”. May God help you if you choose to express your own opinion, especially on social media! Here we go again! So, rabbi where do you stand? Everyone asks the rabbi all kinds of things. Do you know what it is like to have your cell phone on and active on the Eve of Pesach when everyone is trying to remove chometz from their homes? All the halachic questions that come in…you either turn your phone off or you hire a hotline to field them all. Imagine now, what it is like, should I get the vaccine or not? Let’s ask the rabbi…
So here is what the rabbi is going to say. We all know that there is a disproportionate number of Jews in the medical field. With all the Jewish doctors, we also know come all the Jewish attorneys who are hired to sue the Jewish doctors for malpractice! Jews have always dominated the medical industry and have contributed arguably more than all others, just count the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners for science and medicine! For a population that is less than 1% of the earth’s population that says something. It is simply not Jewish to oppose medicine. There are cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and others like Scientologists who refuse medical treatment based on religious observance; and that is their Constitutional right, in so far as the law limits that in some cases. Nevertheless, it is virtually the same as finding kosher pork in the meat section, as it would be to find a Jew who refuses medical attention due to “religious reasons”. Even Orthodox rabbis will give a “rabbinical dispensation” to any Frum Jew who requires medicine that contains non-kosher resin to sustain life! Yet, we now find many militant Messianics who believe they are the judge and the jury ready to condemn anyone who does choose to vaccinate; and humiliate them on social media. Yet, before Covid came around, would we find these same people consider expressing attacks against those who choose chemotherapy? Somehow, now that this issue is so political, many Messianics feel it is their duty to shame anyone who chooses to get vaccinated. This is the plain fact. In so far as Jehovah Witnesses and Scientologists have the God-given right to choose to refrain from medical attention on certain matters, so too does any American have the right to choose to refrain from any vaccine, in my opinion. (Yes, you finally heard the rabbi’s opinion). No one should be forced against their own conscience to be vaccinated. Likewise, those who do choose to exercise their own right to receive such a vaccination should also be free to do so expecting the same respect that others are given. There should be mutual love and respect given, ESPECIALLY TO A BROTHER/SISTER IN THE LORD, who chooses either way. The judgmental spirit that is being exercised in our movement is sickening and is worse than Covid-19 itself! There is more to the issue, however.
It is not only un-Jewish to be anti-medicine, but also unbiblical. The Bible says many things about medicine:
2 Kings 20:7 Then Isaiah said, “Take a cake of figs.” So, they took one and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.
Revelation 22:2 down the middle of the city’s street. On either side of the river was a tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Jeremiah 51:8 Suddenly Babylon is fallen! Shattered! Howl over her! Bring balm for her wound. Perhaps she may be healed?
Isaiah 1:6 From the foot to the head there is no soundness. Wounds, bruises, and raw sores: not pressed, nor bandaged, nor softened with oil.
1 Timothy 5:23 (No longer drink only water but use a little wine for your stomach and for your frequent ailments.)
Luke 10:33 But a Samaritan who was traveling came upon him; and when he noticed the man, he felt compassion. 34 He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then setting him on his own animal, he brought him to a lodge for travelers and took care of him.
Let me be clear, however, I am NOT advocating that everyone go get vaccinated. What I am saying is that everyone needs to make their own decision based on their own relationship with God and be directed by their own conscience. Furthermore, Godly Leadership, AND GODLY GOVERNMENT – AND GODLY BROTHERS AND SISTERS SHOULD NEVER DO OR SAY ANYTHING TO VIOLATE SOMEONE’S CONSCIENCE! Everyone deserves the respect due to their own choice, and along with that choice, there are consequences. There are consequences on both sides of the issue, and all these consequences need to be weighed carefully and in prayer by each individual. If you choose to vaccinate, there are consequences such as the possibility you may be allergic to it. There is a small number of those who have even died from reactions to one. There could be other consequences not even foreseen, perhaps it may not work as well as we thought? On the other hand, those who choose not to vaccinate will no doubt experience consequences as well. Those without vaccinations could experience discrimination from some public services or access to certain services as well. Other consequences could include infection from exposure to the Covid virus even carried by others who enjoy a level of immunity due to their vaccination. These are just some preliminary possibilities off the cuff; more consequences could be discovered in the future. We must all realize that these decisions are not easy for anyone. There are also many variables for everyone, individually. Each person must consider their own individual health issues, their age, their employment status (some work in the medical field), whether they have dependents, etc. It is just completely out of order for ANY Messianic believer to shame, condemn, ridicule, slander, embarrass or call out anyone, let alone another believer for their personal choice that may differ from yours! I question the intentions of the heart of Messianic believers who behave this way, it is a שאַנדע “Shanda”! I cannot express the level of disappointment I feel when I witness believers acting and speaking this way in the judgment of others who make their own decisions they may not agree with. Therefore, I will give my final word on this matter, first to those who are being attacked, I remind you from the words of Rav Shaul, in paraphrase form: “Therefore, do not let anyone pass judgment on you in matters of food or drink, or in respect to a festival or new moon or Shabbat, [or Vaccine]. (Col. 2:16). And for those of you who are behaving foolishly, the words of our same Shaliach, even while originally speaking of food; his admonishment also applies: “For the one who is weak is destroyed by your knowledge—the brother for whom Messiah died. In this way, when you sin against the brothers and sisters and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Messiah.” (1 Cor. 8:11-12).
 All Scripture is from the TLV, unless otherwise noted. This verse paraphrased for emphasis.
 Heb. “Baseless hatred”; an idea that Judaism offers as to the reason for the destruction of the 2nd Temple. That Jews hated each other so much that God allowed the Romans to come and destroy Jerusalem.
 Yiddish, a word that expresses a shameful act of one Jew against another Jew that makes all Jews look bad in the eyes of the goyim (gentiles).