D’var Torah: On Vaccination

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 December 2020

In 1796, the English physician and scientist Edward Jenner took material from the blisters of a person infected with cowpox, and inserted it into an incision on the arm of a young boy, James Phipps, the son of his gardener.

The goal was to test the widespread theory that those who had previously contracted cowpox would subsequently have immunity from smallpox.

Jenner was not the first to explore these ideas – but the evidence he would collect over the next few years of experimentation would lead him to be known as the father of immunology.

And despite some initial opposition, the weight of evidence was such that the medical profession would soon adopt this new method, which would become known as vaccination – the English word coming from the latin – vacca meaning cow.

But what was the Jewish response to this new medical technology?

The first Jewish responses appeared in Central and Eastern Europe within a decade of Jenner’s discovery – there’s a wonderful paper by an American Professor of Jewish history, David B. Ruderman in which he has explored many of these responses.

Reading his paper, what you’re struck by is how positive many of those who wrote were.  Their response was shaped in part by their own personal experience of pain and loss.  But it was also influenced by the weight of scientific evidence that the vaccination worked.  This overcame any minor religious considerations they might have – that it was unknown to the generations of sages, that it was an innovation, that somehow this was interfering with divine will.

In Prague, to take one example, there was a concerted campaign for vaccination among the Jews of the city, led by one family.  It was led by the father Jonas Jeiteles – who was chief physician of the Jewish community hospital – but it was also supported by his son, Baruch, who was the founder of a yeshiva, and who preached in the synagogue on the subject, arguing that Jews were obligated by Jewish tradition to vaccinate themselves and their children.  Another son, Judah, who ran a school, argued that government should compel vaccination and punish those who did not protect their children.

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, most of us will be faced with a choice – of whether to take a new vaccine for a potentially deadly disease.

Those of us in public positions will be asked by government to facilitate and encourage taking of this new vaccine.

But we will not be the first generation to face such a choice.
As we face our decisions, as Jews, these voices of our predecessors should ring in our ears.

For just as they, when they had assured themselves that the vaccine was effective and safe, were unambiguous in their understanding of our tradition, so must we be.

The demand of Jewish Law is that we minimise risk for ourselves and for others; the overriding Jewish value that placed on human life.

The final word for this evening will go to another writer about Jenner’s discovery: Pinchas Elijah Hurwitz- a Polish writer who travelled extensively throughout central and Western Europe, who wrote a work including commentary on scientific discoveries of his time.

This was his understanding of the choice that they faced that we now face, too:
“It is a commandment to publicize this tested cure which God bestowed on us in this generation, [a cure] which previous generations were not privileged to enjoy.”