Fundamental background facts:
1. COVID-19 is an international epidemic which has caused innumerable deaths the world over, including several thousands of our brothers in Israel. In addition, the epidemic has caused severe illness and ongoing health problems, even among those who have recovered. The epidemic has also caused psychological damage, and extensive damage economically, in the world of education, and in many social spheres.
2. To date, all of the methods employed to contain the epidemic have failed. The disease continues to spread and to bring about widespread death and illness.
3. The vaccinations manufactured to provide protection against the Coronavirus, and which have passed the accepted stages of research, and which have received the accreditation of the most authorized regulatory agencies in the world, have proven to be extremely effective, not only during experimental trial, but also during actual implementation millions of people in various countries around the world, and especially in Israel. Furthermore, they have proven to be very safe, with only mild and passing negative after-effects.
4. All the claims of conspiracy, and the alarmist fake news surrounding the vaccines, are unfounded, fake news, and a person should not take them into account. While there do remain several open questions, they don’t carry enough weight to avoid vaccination.
5. The people who refuse to be vaccinated cause damage to themselves, since they are liable to become very sick, and even to die. In addition, they cause damage to others, because they are likely to infect many people, both a very small percentage amongst those who have already been vaccinated, and amongst those who were not allowed to be vaccinated, whether because of some existing medical problem, or because they lacked permission, such as children under the age of 16 (note: the vaccine has not been tested for under 16 year olds).
Hence, halakhically it is an obligation upon everyone to be vaccinated based on the commandment, “You shall safeguard yourselves exceedingly,” (Devarim, 4:15), ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם and based on the imperative to avoid harm to others.
In light of these factors, the Halakhic and ethical conclusions regarding people who refuse vaccination are as follows:
1. Regarding vaccination refusers – the matter must be judged in light of its criminal aspect, and in the sphere of damages/torts. Firstly, if it is permissible, or necessary, to force them to be vaccinated against their will, or to punish them for their refusal, as a consequence of the criminal aspect of their refusal. Secondly, it is permissible or necessary to impose sanctions upon them, or to deny them benefits, or interaction with the public, as a consequence of the aspect of damage caused by their refusal.
In regard to forced vaccination or punishments, it seems that from the principle of the law (Ikar HaDin) in the realm of Halakha, there is room for compulsion based on whether the condition is such that the epidemic is severe with grave mortality and sickness involved, this stemming both from the commandment to carefully guard one’s health, and in order to prevent them from spreading the disease to others, thereby endangering lives.
In practice, it seems this approach will not be implemented in democratic states which respect the autonomy of the individual, even at the price of personal injury to himself. Nonetheless, the leaders of these countries, and those who determine the law, are obligated to make a great educational effort to explain the vital importance of the matter, medically, ethically, and in light of the Halakha – to persuade people to be vaccinated, and to negate the various false rumors opposing vaccination.
2. Regarding sanctions and restrictions on interacting with the public, and concerning the incentive of benefits, it seems clear that this is permissible, and even an obligation of the government to enact such measures.
That is to say, it is permissible to prevent vaccination refusers to enter places that are not vital to life, and to grant entry permits to public places (such as hotels, restaurants, places of entertainment, and the like; and even to synagogues and schools), only to those who have been vaccinated, or to those who were infected and recovered. It is also permissible to prevent vaccination refusers from interacting with the public, including teachers, policemen, store owners, and the like.
And it is certainly permitted for private companies and private businesses to allow entry to their premises exclusively to those who can prove that they have been vaccinated, or have recovered from coronavirus.
3. It also must be noted that in the realm of damages/torts, a vaccination refuser, during a spreading and uncontained epidemic, can be legally sued placed under legal obligation if a person is infected and becomes ill because of the said person who refused to be vaccinated, and the person who became ill can bring a damage suit against the person who infected him.
4. However, it must be noted that one cannot withhold medical treatment to a vaccination refuser if he becomes ill with Corona, even if he could have prevented himself from getting sick. This is the customary way of relating to any sick person who caused his or her own illness, such as chronic smokers, alcoholics, and the like. In the sphere of Halakha, we do not withhold treatment from someone who was injured while desecrating the Sabbath in public, or similar situations.
Translation from Hebrew: Tzvi Fishman
Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg serves as Director of the Medical Ethics Unit & Chairman, IRB Committee, and is Senior Child Neurologist at Shaare Zedek Hospital; Chief Editor of the 27 volume Head of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, and author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. He is an Israel Prize laureate.