One of the most incredible advances made by humankind is the ability to provide protections against disease that in the past ravaged families and communities.
But what do we, as a society, do when some choose not to make use of such gifts – especially if it puts others in danger?
One example is the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination. Last week Britain’s most senior GPs urged the Government to make the jab compulsory for children before they are allowed to begin primary school.
The reason they have made the call is because of evidence that unvaccinated children can put both themselves and their classmates at risk of the diseases, even where the classmates have been vaccinated themselves.
This is a difficult and complex issue. It also brings up an interesting ethical dilemma – of individual choice versus protecting others – for which we can turn to the Torah.
One of the foundational principles of Judaism is pikuach nefesh – saving a life.
The medieval philosopher and physician, Maimonides, wrote: “God created drugs and compounds and gave us the intelligence necessary to discover their medicinal properties; we must use them in warding off illness.”
Halakhically, as our bodies are not ours but gifts from God, we are not at liberty to damage them. Just as we are commanded to have appropriate building practices to prevent injury – “build a parapet around your roof” – so too should we use means to protect our most vulnerable from potentially life-threatening conditions.
Vaccines qualify as refu’ah bedukah, proven remedies and are an obligation.
So both at a personal or family level, Liberal Judaism emphasises our responsibility to others: “Al tifrosh min ha’tzibbur – Do not separate yourself from the community.”
However on this specific issue, my colleague Rabbi Dr Maragaret Jacobi points out that both the Royal Society for Public Health and Faculty of Public Health oppose the senior GPs’ plan, on the grounds there are better ways to increase MMR vaccination rates.
So as long as these other means are vigorously pursued to fufil our Jewish principles, then it seems best not to impose compulsory vaccination for school entry at present.
- Rabbi Aaron Goldstein is senior rabbi at Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue