Last Thursday, July 29, President Biden challenged America to renew its drive to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus and the deadly Delta variant of that disease.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” the president said as he urged some 90 million unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated.
“People are dying and will die who don’t have to die. If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die. Read the news,” said the president.
News reports have proliferated about Americans stricken with the virus who now regret not receiving the vaccine. Some individuals believe their personal liberties are infringed by being vaccinated at the behest of federal, state or local government officials.
This is muddled reasoning. A primary function of government at all levels is to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.
Avoiding vaccination can be disastrous. The New York Times reported in depth on the remorse of the acutely ill who rejected injections. Mindy Greene watched her 42-year-old husband, Russ, struggle for breath while assisted by a respirator.
“We did not get the vaccine,” she wrote on Facebook. “I read all kinds of things about the vaccine and it scared me. So, I made the decision and prayed about it and got the impression we would be okay,” the Times reported.
Such was not the case. As Russ Greene struggled to survive, his wife made a candid admission. “If I had the information I have today, we would have gotten vaccinated,” Ms. Greene wrote on Facebook.
Regrettably, the same day that President Biden invoked his bully pulpit to inspire Americans to get vaccinated, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order forbidding local government officials from imposing safety measures based upon what is happening in particular cities and counties.
“Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19. They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities. Vaccines, which remain in abundant supply, are the most effective defense against the virus, and they will always remain voluntary — never forced — in the State of Texas,” the governor said in a public statement.
The Houston Chronicle blasted Gov. Abbott’s feckless leadership in an editorial. “Buzzwords such as ‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’ sound great in stump speeches but make little sense in terms of public health: one person’s choice to go maskless can affect someone else’s health. Our personal responsibility isn’t limited to protecting our own bodies and families: it includes our responsibility to act in the best interest of our community.
“The community includes people who can’t be vaccinated,” the Chronicle continued. “Among them: more than half of the state’s 5.4 million public school students under 12, for whom the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve a vaccine. Wearing a mask provides some measure of protection for a student, but far less if he’s the only kid in class wearing one.”
As Jews, we must be guided by the teaching of the Torah. Our sacred text stresses that, as individuals, we must take responsibility for the well-being of those around us. “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16)
Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, has written of Judaism’s emphasis on the primacy of following medical advice. The rabbi wrote that following safety measures is necessary “during this time of pandemic, like wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining physical distancing, are not just recommended but are obligated by halakha, Jewish law.
“If there is even a chance that our behavior can protect our lives, and the lives of others, then that would take precedence over any other consideration,” noted Rabbi Peltz.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have urged Gov. Abbott to allow them, as public officials closest to their communities, to tailor health care measures based upon what is actually happening in their respective communities.
“The governor’s order is based on polling data of what Republican primary voters want to hear; conversely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations are based on the most recent data regarding the much more contagious Delta variant and what scientists and medical professionals have learned thus far to combat the spread and harm of COVID,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said after Abbott issued his restrictions.
Leaders may have different opinions. But, Judaism teaches that each of us has a responsibility to ourselves, our families and our communities to protect health. Wearing a mask may be bothersome, but it is insignificant compared to the virulence of the Delta variant and the coronavirus.
We pray that the Delta variant will subside. Yet, none among us can escape our responsibilities to each other and to our entire community. We are all connected to each other. Let us follow Judaism’s teachings that good health is a gift from Hashem to be protected, cherished and preserved.
A version of this editorial appeared in the Aug. 5, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston.