“Where does it say in Judaism that you can’t be vaccinated?” the CNN anchor asked the young woman.
“While in Judaism there is no specific tenet, we can look for guidance,” replied Stephanie Edmonds to the national television audience. “So I’ve done what I suggest other people do: consult with your family, pray, and this is the decision I’ve come to between me and G-d.”
Edmonds, a 10th grade history teacher at a Bronx public high school, refused to be vaccinated as all city employees are required to do. Instead, she filed a religious exemption claim.
Edmonds cited her Jewish faith as the basis, although she reportedly is not affiliated with any synagogue, Jewish sect, or organized Jewish life and she did not include a supporting letter from a rabbi in the claim. The exemption was denied, as was the appeal.
She was sent home without pay, the consequence for city employees who refuse to vaccinate without an approved religious or medical exemption. And from home launched a media blitz.
“I have deep relationships with a lot of these students, and it breaks my heart to leave them,” she told CNN.
In addition to Edmonds, two other Jewish public school teachers filed religious exemptions, including a frum woman from Boro Park, according to a story in the Jewish media.
“The Orthodox Union does not provide or facilitate religious exemptions from vaccines, and continues to strongly promote vaccination,” said Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer in a statement to The Jewish Press.
“We support exemptions from vaccination mandates for sincerely-held religious reasons,” Rabbi Avi Safran, Director of Public Affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, told The Jewish Press in an emailed statement.
The right to seek a religious exemption is from the federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from discrimination on the basis of religions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are determined to have sincerely held religious beliefs unless it would create an undue hardship for the business/organization. In religious exemption cases, undue hardship is defined by EEOC as being more than a minimal cost or burden on the employer’s operation.
The overwhelming majority of rabbinic leaders support vaccination and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and others even hold halacha obligates vaccination to protect the life of the person and those around him/her. One of America’s leading poskim, Rav Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, wrote in The Jewish Press in July that one is obligated to get the Covid vaccine. Indeed, YU requires students and staff to be vaccinated.
When asked if the Agudah supported Covid vaccination in general, Rabbi Shafran responded, “We don’t take positions on medical issues, leaving that to medical authorities and people in consultation with their doctors. But we have facilitated vaccination clinics and kept Jewish educational institutions apprised of guidance about medical matters, including vaccines, from government agencies.”
As vaccine mandates expand in both the public and private sector, Torah observant employees are being compelled to re-evaluate their reasons for not being vaccinated. Despite the overwhelming support for vaccination by rabbonim and medical experts, hesitancy persists in a small but vocal segment of the frum community for several reasons.
First, vaccination, mandates, and even mask requirements have become very divisive political issues. Some Republicans philosophically disagree with mandates, perceiving them as an unfair imposition on freedom and private sector business. Many do not trust the objectivity or accuracy of the BIden Administration and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anthony Fauci regarding Covid policies. A Pew study in August reported 86% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Americans were vaxxed compared to 60% of Republicans and those leaning GOP. A recent Harvard consortium survey said 65% of all Americans support vaccine mandates while 43% of Republicans supported the policy.
Second, many in this minority segment continue to believe false information about dangerous side effects, such as paralysis, cardiac arrest, fertility problems, and even the shot causing Covid infection. The fast track approval process is cited as a concern, even though the subsequent data proves the vaccine’s high degree of effectiveness and safety as does the healthy outcomes experienced by hundreds of millions of receipts around the world. This misinformed position is fueled by a person’s anti-vax political views.
Third, some believe their local frum community has already achieved herd immunity, lessening or eliminating the need for vaccination.
Fourth, in addition or in combination with political opposition, some have a culturally-generated distrust of government caused by the history of anti-Semitic oppression in Europe.
Fifth, Despite the overwhelming rabbinic support, vaccine hold-outs are being influenced by very small but vocal number of rabbonim who are discouraging vaccination. Likely influenced by misinformation, these rabbonim believe the health risks are too significant despite the evidence to the contrary.
In halacha, the obligation to protect one’s health is defined by the current medical knowledge. When there is disagreement, a process exists for evaluating the differing views and determining a prevailing position. The overwhelming conclusion regarding Covid is that the vaccines are highly effective and very safe, whereas Covid poses a life-threatening risk
“[T]he decision to validate a minority opinion does not result in greater sensitivity to the sanctity of life; it results in the disregarding of a clear majority view and a consequential risk to human life – of the individual deciding as well as of others,” wrote Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman in The Jewish Press regarding this issue. ”Similarly, some have argued that it is better to decline the vaccine even at the risk of contracting Covid, based on the halachic principle of “shev v’al ta’aseh adif” – i.e. it is preferable to avoid a deliberate action that may be harmful, even if the passive alternative is also connected to a possible negative outcome. Here too, this is a difficult application; failure to adhere to medical direction in a situation of such serious risk would certainly be considered willful negligence.”