Da’as Torah and Anti-Vaxxers

May 1, 2019
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In a recent article in the Forward, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization of American Charedi Jews, complained that the media was singling out the ultra-Orthodox as the prime culprits responsible for the measles outbreak in the United States. He implied that what underlay these media reports was not only anti-Charedi sentiment but actually unvarnished anti-Semitism. He pointed out that on the one hand there are many “anti-vaxxers” who are not Jewish, much less Charedim. On the other hand, what he called the “vast majority” of Orthodox Jews do have their children vaccinated.

On its face, Shafran is not incorrect. The problem is that he simply is not telling the whole truth. Indeed, it is the very leaders of his own organization who are telling their followers not to vaccinate their children if, for whatever reason, they don’t want to. Even more troubling, these same leaders are forbidding schools under their religious aegis to deny attendance to unvaccinated children.

Although ground zero for the outbreaks in America have been the Chasidic strongholds of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods, it is the non-Chasidic leaders of Agudath Israel who not only have justified opposition to vaccinations, but explicitly condemn schools that require vaccines as a prerequisite for attendance. They draw upon on mostly discredited studies and argue that the risk of complications from measles is minimal. They overlook the fact that the saving of life (pikuach nefesh) applies even in cases where the risk of death is minimal. Yet the risk is very real. I should know. Many years ago, my younger brother nearly died from complications of measles. It was only thanks to the proximity of a talented and energetic doctor that he survived the trip to the hospital.

The risk is very real. I should know. Many years ago, my younger brother nearly died from complications of measles.

And yet these rabbis assert their opinion is nothing less than what has come to be called da’as Torah, or Torah authority, elevating their erroneous and dangerous views to the level of near prophesy. No wonder ordinary Charedim are loathe to challenge the views of their respected leaders. To do so would be to risk expulsion from their tightly-knit communities.

Who are the men issuing these pronouncements? Two of them lead the Beis Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, N.J.: Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, its chancellor or Rosh HaYeshiva, and Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, its moral tutor (to borrow a term employed at Oxbridge colleges) or mashgiach. They lead a yeshiva that is the most prestigious and the wealthiest school of its kind in the United Stares — in effect, the Harvard of yeshivas. No wonder their word is taken as law.

But these men are not alone among the rabbinical anti-vaxxers. Rabbis Shmuel Kamenetsky and Aaron Schechter are, like Rabbi Kotler, members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah — the Committee of Torah Sages — that dictates Agudah’s religious and secular policies. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leading Israel-based decisor for thousands of Charedim worldwide, has also, in the words of Rabbis Kotler, Solomon and Kaminetsky, “explicitly ruled that schools cannot refuse such [unvaccinated] children.” These rulings are not merely flouting science; their da’as Torah is endangering hundreds, perhaps thousands of younger children and older people who are especially vulnerable to complications from measles.

In the previous century, Agudah’s rabbis invoked da’as Torah to urge Europe’s Orthodox Jews not to emigrate to America or Israel in order to escape the Nazi onslaught. Until May 1948, they invoked the same principle to oppose the creation of the State of Israel. In the 1970s and ’80s, they invoked da’as Torah again to counsel against public demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Now they invoke it to oppose vaccinations. And once again, as before, they find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Dov S. Zakheim was Under Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in the second Ronald Reagan administration. He holds a doctorate from Oxford.

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