Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Will Orthodox Jews listen to their leaders regarding vaccination? 

At the beginning of his weekly video Torah lesson, Rabbi Asher Weiss let his viewers know he was about to broach a contentious topic.

"I know that not everybody will like what I say," said Weiss, a leading Orthodox Jewish legal authority in Israel with a large following in the United States, peppering Hebrew terms into his speech. "But if I won't speak my mind I think it would be a sin."

The sensitive subject of his lesson?

The COVID-19 vaccine. After an hourlong class packed with rabbinic sources, Weiss gave his verdict: "When we deal with the question [of whether] to take the vaccine: Yes. Definitely yes

"Every new medicine or medical procedure might have long-term effects, but we always try to strike the right balance between what is needed now and what might, theoretically, happen in the future," he said. "People are dying, people are suffering, and we could alleviate this pain, and diminish the suffering and save many people. This is a safe vaccine as far as we could know."

Weiss' lesson echoes what medical and rabbinic authorities across the Orthodox world are saying as the COVID-19 vaccine begins to become available. Virtually all Orthodox leaders are encouraging their communities to trust the medical consensus and take the vaccine when it becomes available, and in Israel, many are already publicly sharing their own vaccinations.

Yet Orthodox health professionals and communal leaders do worry that a vocal minority of their community won't heed their guidance. They point to skepticism regarding the vaccine in the overall population because of anti-vaccine sentiments — in the past expressed by some leading Orthodox rabbis — as well as nervousness with the speed at which the vaccines were developed and the politicization of the virus.

They also point to the pernicious effects of misinformation in an era when communication and news gathering takes place on messaging networks like WhatsApp. And they fear that mistaken notions that Hasidim in both Brooklyn and the haredi town of Bnei Brak in Israel have achieved herd immunity will make people feel that a vaccine is unnecessary.

"The majority have [said], 'How do I get on the list?'" said Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island, and an assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere, a large Orthodox synagogue. Glatt  gives a weekly COVID video update targeted to a largely Orthodox audience.


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