Monday, December 03, 2018

AntiVaxxers - Religious Views Gone Awry

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (TLS)
Although I have dealt with the issue in the past, I have in large part ignored the current debate over measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccinations. Not because I didn’t think vaccinations were important. Of course they are. But because I did not believe that any sane person would disagree with that. The few that do, I basically wrote off as nut-job fringe conspiracy theorists.

Unfortunately, there are more than a few  conspiracy theorists. Some of them are not fringe at all. In fact some are quite prominent.

There is currently a deadly measles epidemic taking place both in Israel and here in America. Those affected are mostly in the Charedi community. The epidemic is so widespread that Yeshivas Mir is currently offering to vaccinate any of their students who think they might need it - at no charge. Measles is a highly contagious disease. So it is spreading rapidly.

In the United States  I am aware of communities in New York, Lakewood, Detroit, and Chicago that are affected. I’m sure that there are more. Considering that measles has for decades been pretty much eradicated as a disease, this is somewhat shocking.

How serious is this disease?  One or two out of every 1000 that contract it, will die. So the lack of protecting oneself via vaccination is a matter of Pikuach Nefesh. Those who refuse to be vaccinated or refuse it for their children are literally putting not only their own children at risk, but considering the high degree of contagiousness, are putting entire communities at risk.

What is behind this phenomenon? There are some people that think being vaccinated is more harmful than not being vaccinated. For example they point to now discredited studies that have linked vaccinations to autism in children.  

Part of the problem is that there are some misguided rabbis in positions of authority support these conspiracy theorists. How so? Well one example is what BMG (Lakewood) Rosh Hayeshiva R’ Malkiel Kotler has done. From YWN
According to his [Rabbi Kotler’s] words, on account of this, there are thousands of children in the New York and surrounding area that are sitting in their homes. This is because their parents are refusing to vaccinate them on account of a concern that the vaccination itself may be harmful to the child…
On the other hand, the administrations of the Talmud Torahs refuse to accept these students the entire time that they remain unvaccinated. This is on account of the danger that they will cause the spread of measles throughout the Talmud Torah.
According to his [Rabbi Kotler’s] view, “This is improper, since there is substance to the view that the vaccine may be damaging. There is also the matter that according to his [Rabbi Kotler’s] words, there are Gedolei Torah that agree with the view that parents cannot be forced to vaccinate.”
In a strongly worded letter to Rabbi Kotler, Rav Moshe Sternbuch said the following
(P)arents of vaccinated children can demand that those children that are not vaccinated not be allowed to enter into schools together with their children. For as it is known this disease is very communicable. The vaccination itself cannot completely prevent the spread of it [there remains a 3 percent chance of infection even after vaccination].
The children that are not vaccinated do not have a right to endanger the vaccinated children and to expose them to the disease – even though the mortal danger to them is remote and minimal, since there is a small chance that they can become sickened by the disease. The parents have the right to demand that their children not be exposed to the illness even with no mortal danger. 
That is the right thing to do. In a letter sent out last week by the primary Charedi religious schools here in Chicago, parents were advised that no child would be admitted to class that did not have an MMR vaccination.  

I wish that was the end of the story. But I was shocked by what I was directed to on Facebook

A teleconference was held - led by Rebbetzin Temi Kamenetsky (wife of Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky) designed to give Chizuk (her words) to the anti vaxxers. It is available on Facebook in both audio and transcribed form. There one will find the unbelievably shocking words spoken by the wife of a one of the most respected rabbinic leaders in America. Here are some of the things she said: 
Did you ever hear of Amalek? Hashem told to get rid of them because they're not good. They tried to destroy b'nei yisroel. And they're still trying. Merck is a German company, and they produce MMR. Worldwide a lot of terrible things have been happening. Autism is all over the world.
I know personally two babies who died, they were three months old. Right after, two and a half weeks after the shots. But the doctors don't believe it. They're taught, they don't know that they're taught by professors who are apikorsim or representatives of the medical, of the pharmaceutical companies.
This is a test min hashamayim. As everything is a test. We're told al tivtichi b'nedivim b'ben adam sheain lo teshuah. He could be the greatest person, the [unintelligible] the doctors, the lawyers, the Indian chiefs. But you can't trust anyone, any human being. And it says bitchu baShem, we are told we must trust Hashem…
We're being forced to choose between school or vaccinations. So we could just tell everybody, I'd rather trust Hashem than the doctors. It's mamesh a gezeira, it's a gezeima min hashamiyim. We're being tested…
They're even using v'nishmartem meod es nafshoseichem to say that this is hishtadlus, take the vaccination [laughs]. It's sheker, it has to do with money. Because they make, Amalekim make billions a year, it's coming up to trillions, and they spend millions to bribe the politicians... 
I encourage everyone to read or listen to the rest for themselves. And weep. 

What makes this even more perplexing is that I have been personally told by a distinguished member of the Kamenetsky family that all of her own children were vaccinated! What happened? How did she come to these absurd and dangerous conclusions?

I can only conjecture. But it has to be a combination a propensity towards conspiracy theories and religiosity gone awry based on bad information and in my view a gross misunderstanding of Halacha.

Rebbetzin Kamenetsky is not a Posek. I’m sure she will be the first to tell you that. But there are some people that consider themselves Poskim in this regard and have published Teshuvos (responsa) promoting the false notion that as a matter of Halacha one must refuse to be vaccinated. And that by doing so, you are in effect an Apikores - denying the very existence of God!

This is an extremely dangerous situation that seems to be affecting the Charedi world the most. The question is why? 

It is clear that both medical science and the vast majority of Charedi Poskim agree on the vital need for vaccinations. And the absolute right - or even obligation - by schools to bar any unvaccinated children from attending. But it is also clear that most of the antivaxxer crowd lies squarely in that community. Because with respect to Orthodox Jewry, that is where the epidemic seems to be centered

In my view this is a corruption of their understanding of what faith in God is all about. Yes, God is the true healer. But it is our obligation to do whatever we can in that regard. God clearly tells us that in the Torah itself: We must very much guard our lives.

That means that we do not rely on miracles. We do what we can and God does the rest. To say that listening to doctors is a denial of God is itself pure unadulterated Apikursus. Any rabbis (or Rebbetzins) that defend the rights of parents to send their unvaccinated children to school are in my view violating the fundamental Halachos of Pikuach Nefesh! And they should be ignored. Because the price of listening to them may be very costly.