By Cantor Sheri Allen
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.”
The synagogue in which I serve took these words to heart when we began discussions about reopening several months ago. Much research and reflection went into the decisions leading to that moment when we held our first in-person service (in June) since the pandemic began. We decided to require everyone to be vaccinated in order to attend. And as the High Holidays approach, and the Delta variant is dramatically rising, we have added the stipulation that everyone wear masks in our building. As much as we don’t want to prevent anyone from walking through our doors, we strongly feel that pikuach nefesh — the saving of a life and one of Judaism’s most important tenets — takes precedence.
So after recently reading that, despite increasingly frightening statistics about the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Abbott (who was just diagnosed with COVID-19 himself) is sticking to his decision to prohibit local government and state agencies, as well as public schools, from requiring mandatory vaccinations and masking. And it made me wonder: If Gov. Abbott were Jewish, would this decision be grounds for excommunication? Of course, I ask this a bit tongue-in-cheek, but his reasoning, namely, “Protection against the virus should be a matter of personal responsibility, not forced by a government edict,” is antithetical to Jewish values.
It’s certainly not the thinking in Israel, where new restrictions include mandatory masking in outdoor gatherings as well as indoors, and the reinstitution of the “Green Pass,” a vaccination certificate needed to gain entry to a number of indoor facilities such as sporting and cultural events, restaurants, gyms, hotels, theaters and faith congregations.
Clearly, Judaism places communal responsibility above individual concerns. The Talmud also reminds us, kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: We are all responsible for one another. In other words, it’s not all about me. It’s about us. It isn’t about infringing on anyone’s rights or privacy. It’s about trying to protect and save the lives of our community. Our personal decisions must take into account how those decisions will affect our families and communities.
In an article for the New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Yosie Levine comments, “When lives are on the line, the Torah’s ethics do not countenance nonfeasance. Refusing to receive the vaccine is tantamount to standing idly by while another person is being assaulted. If achieving herd immunity will save lives — and there is no doubt that it will — then each of us has a responsibility to help our nation achieve that goal. To shirk that responsibility is to fall woefully short of what the Torah expects of us.”
Adir Posy of Beth Jacob, rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills and a leader in the Orthodox Union, adds, “It’s a Jewish mandate to take whatever lifesaving measures are necessary, even in the case of potential risk. Centuries ago, he said, rabbis defended the novel smallpox vaccine by ruling that “you can enter into a small risk in order to avoid a bigger one down the line.”
The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently came out with an answer to the following question: Now that vaccines for COVID-19 are available, is there an obligation to be vaccinated? Can Jewish institutions require vaccination for employees, students and congregants? Here is their response:
• We reiterate that Jewish law obligates Jews to vaccinate themselves and others in their care, with medical guidance, with vaccines that have a proven and safe track record.
• COVID-19 vaccines approved by government health agencies under emergency processes are considered to be refuot b’dukot, established treatments. With proper medical guidance, Jews are obligated to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
• Jewish institutions are permitted, by halakhah, to require their employees, students, and congregants to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Gov. Abbott’s mandate prohibiting local government and state agencies from requiring vaccination or masking isn’t up for discussion, even as some Texas leaders defy it. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is one of them. He is requiring the city’s nearly 22,000 city employees to mask up inside city buildings where social distancing is not doable, such as bathrooms, elevators and conference rooms.
And just a few days ago, a news release from the Arlington Independent School District announced that they will be “considering legal action against Abbott’s executive order prohibiting school districts from requiring face coverings.” This action was prompted by the fact that there are currently no pediatric ICU beds available in the area.
Abbott’s mandate is irresponsible and dangerous. The words of the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reflecting on “who will live and who will die” and by what means, weigh more heavily than usual on me this year. Perhaps we should amend the prayer to say, “who will live, who will die and whose deaths could’ve been easily prevented.” I sincerely hope that Gov. Abbott has a change of heart and decides to put the needs and safety of all Texans first.
Sheri Allen is the cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Her opinions do not necessarily express those of her congregation.