And Here We Go
Many years ago my wife and I adopted a beautiful custom from one of her teachers. Every Shabbos, we go around the table, and people take turns to relate their highlights of the week. Last Shabbos, everyone thought that my biggest highlight would be that the government finally gave permission for museums to open, albeit with restrictions on the number of visitors. But, while that was obviously a tremendous highlight for me, I was surprised that nobody had mentioned something vastly more amazing: the approval and import of the vaccine! Finally, the end to this horrible pandemic is in sight. We should be dancing from the rooftops!
Many people are, of course, very happy. But many people are also scared, or fired up in anger. They believe that the vaccine is dangerous, and that it is being pushed by Bill Gates and Big Pharma who want to make money at the expense of peoples' lives. Recently there was a car making the rounds in my home town of Ramat Beit Shemesh, with a loudspeaker blaring about how the vaccine is terribly dangerous and must not be taken. Ministry of Health officials met with community leaders in Bnei Brak to convince them to back the national vaccination program, but were unsuccessful.
To what extent is this anti-vaccination a characteristic of the charedi community? Actually, you can find opposition to the vaccine in every sector of the population. You don't have to be charedi to be against the vaccine - but it helps.
There's been a much-publicized pashkevil declaring that the vaccine is highly dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. This Daas Torah is proclaimed in the name of Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Malkiel Kotler and others.
Now, it turns out that this pashkevil appears to be a hoax. A yeshivishe friend of mine pointed to all kinds of indications which reveal that it is not genuine. But do you know what does not reveal it to be a hoax? The notion of these rabbis opposing a vaccine!
As my friend Aqibha Weisinger noted, if such a letter was posted in the name of Rav Hershel Schechter, everyone would know instantly that it was a hoax, because Rav Shechter would never, ever say such a foolish thing. But the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the charedi Gedolim named in this letter.
Nearly four years ago I wrote a post titled "When Rabbis Quack." In that post I critiqued an anti-rationalist, anti-scientific, anti-medicine book on alternative medicine by Rabbi Rafoel Szmerla, which received glowing approbations from various charedi Gedolim. I warned that such a mindset could lead to people opposing MMR vaccinations. Subsequently I was proved correct when several Gedolim backed a group called "The Vaccine Coalition" which was actually an anti-vaccine coalition. (You can see my coverage of that in a post titled "The Lakewood Suicide Squad.")
It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that the charedi Gedolim who endorsed Szmerla's book are the same charedi Gedolim who backed the anti-MMR-vaccine coalition, and they are the exact same charedi Gedolim listed in the pashkevil against the coronavirus vaccine.
So the fact that these charedi Gedolim supposedly did not actually write this letter is not so relevant. Even the fact that Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky issued a letter stating that he never said any such thing, and that he recommends that people consult their doctors, is not as effective as it should be. Because the fact is that all these charedi Gedolim have spent years laying the groundwork for their communities to be opposed to vaccinations.
Israel has had 3000 deaths from Covid; the US has had 300,000. (There has also been the incalculable harm to physical and mental health, and the economic loss.) We finally have a chance to bring this to a halt. It is a tragedy that there are renowned charedi Gedolei Torah who are responsible for dragging out this pandemic, resulting in additional harm and deaths. I'm generally quite tolerant of non-rationalism, but there are times when its consequences are just too horrible to bear.
UPDATE: It was just announced that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Edelstein have announced that people should take the vaccine. But meanwhile, Rav Shmuel Eliezer Stern, one of the leading chassidishe poskim, stated that people should not take it. It will be interesting to see how this plays out; let's hope that this is a case in which the authority wielded by Rav Chaim Kanievsky will have a positive effect.
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