New American Reform Responsa
147. Refusal of Immunization
QUESTION: A family in the congregation, for reasons of its own, does not wish to have their child immunized. Normally children who attend both religious and public school are immunized unless there is a specific religious reason which prevents the parents from doing so. What is our Reform Jewish attitude toward the parents and their decision, and secondly what should be the attitude of the Religious School in registering this child? (Rabbi J. M. Parr, Atlanta GA)
ANSWER: The Jewish tradition has sought to do everything possible to cure those who are ill and to prevent disease. There is a long honored history of Jewish physicians from Asaph in the early Middle Ages to modern times which has demonstrated that some of our best minds have devoted themselves to medicine. Among them were Moses Maimonides and a host of others who were also great Jewish scholars (H. Friedenwald Jewish Luminaries in Medical History; Jews and Medicine). In the twentieth century a large number of Jews have been particularly involved with seeking ways of immunizing in order to prevent diseases. For example, Salk and Sabin with the polio vaccine.
Health has always been considered a primary good, so pikuah nefesh has been considered as overriding virtually every religious prohibition in order to cure or save a life. The shabbat commandment, those of kashrut, and all except the most basic precepts may be violated in order to save a life and restore health. There were some discussions in the literature which dealt with medicines and vaccines prepared from non-kosher substances. Their use is, of course, permitted. I have found no other mention of immunization in the responsa literature.
The rejection of immunization by these parents is certainly outside the basic mood of the Jewish tradition. Unless there is a very specific medical reason, nothing in Jewish thought or halakhahwould condone this.
Now let us look at the child’s enrollment in Religious School. The requirement of immunization by the public school authorities is a way of assuring universal immunization and as a method of protecting the other children. It also, of course, protects an entire population as broad immunization will effectively eliminate certain diseases from the schools. The public schools and the courts have, however, decided that if there is a strong religious objection the child need not be immunized and is nevertheless required to attend public school. That child is equally liable to the laws of school attendance as all others. The school authorities therefore, feel that the failure of a few children to be immunized will not harm the others.
We should follow the same pattern in our religious schools. Although there is no basis in Judaism for the action of the parents, we believe them to be misguided and outside the realm of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, the youngster should be accepted in the Religious School and enrolled as any other child.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.