Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 5, 2021 / 21 Adar 5781
Summary: In this week’s Oasis Songs, I explore what Judaism has to say about vaccine cheaters—those who get vaccinated before their class of people is eligible.
Reading Time: Eight minutes
This past Shabbat, I shared some Jewish perspectives on vaccine cheating, and addressed why doing so is not a victimless crime. Numerous people reached out to me if I could make those remarks available. What follows is a truncated version of that sermon.
The impetus for the talk came from a congregant who learned of a relatively young retired teacher who chose to get vaccinated even though only actively employed teachers were eligible. Numerous such stories have made the news cycle.
What does Judaism have to say about this? Is it unethical for someone to push to the front of the line? Do they cause damage to someone else by doing so?
The first thing we should recognize is that triage and distributive justice exist on the margins of ethics. When a society faces a shortage of necessary goods, such as life-saving vaccines, it is forced to make difficult, utilitarian calculations. By their nature, these decisions are somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes they are based on practical concerns rather than ethical ones.
Deciding to inoculate teachers before many other first responders is a defensible decision, but it is arbitrary, especially in places that are in no rush to return students to the classrooms. In fact, not all states have moved teachers up toward the front of the line, presumably for this and other reasons.
The three questions we will explore are:
- If the inoculation roll out is at least partially arbitrary, what obligation does an individual member of society have to comply with those rules?
- When a person’s life is in jeopardy, does it take precedence over another life? If it does take precedence, and someone’s life is at stake, then is it possible that they are not obligated to follow the rules?
- What if I want to do the right thing, but also am very worried about my health and well-being? Is there something I can do besides waiting my turn?
1. If the inoculation roll out is at least partially arbitrary, what obligation does an individual member of society have to comply with those rules?
This first question is really interesting. Let’s first recognize that America emphasized individual rights at the expense of communal needs. As a result, we often grant ourselves unearned entitlements while forgetting that we have obligations to society.
It is why someone who is not eligible may jump to the front of the line. In the example of the retired teacher, we can imagine the person’s train of thought: “I used to be a teacher, so even though I am retired, I am still entitled to get vaccinated with that group. Besides, look at all I did for society by my choice of career.”
Judaism, like secular ethics, does have proponents of absolutist morals. This approach is perhaps best exemplified by the school of Shammai who understood, like Immanuel Kant did, that there are certain categorical imperatives, such as never to lie, even if your truth telling will benefit no one and actually cause harm. For these individuals, they must follow the vaccination rules because it is always wrong to cheat and steal.
But most of Jewish ethics focus on case-based ethics—what is right to do in a particular situation. If you fall into this camp, the danger is that you might want to rationalize your line jumping, as we assume the retired teacher did.
Even for a case-based approach to ethics, I don’t think there is any way that Judaism would countenance vaccination cheaters. There is a notion that “silence equals consent.” If you want to receive the vaccine, you have given implicit consent to the workings of society, the pharmaceutical companies, and the state rules that oversee vaccination. I don’t really see how you can give consent to one part of this equation and choose to ignore the other part just because it is inconvenient, or because you want your shot sooner.
At the same time, implicit consent also means that all legal loopholes may be utilized because they are part of that same system of consent. Thus, while a retired teacher would not be eligible, a part time teacher or one who will only be teaching remotely for the foreseeable future, may sign up.
Please note the may. Judaism normally sets a moral baseline. Those who choose to err on the side of piety are considered to receive a divine reward (al hamachmir, tavo bracha). Thus, it would be praiseworthy if you are only teaching remotely and want to refrain from getting a vaccination so that others in higher risk groups can—but this level of piety is neither expected nor required.
2. When a person’s life is in jeopardy, does it take precedence over another life? If it does take precedence, and your life is at stake, then is it possible that you are not obligated to follow the rules?
Judaism believes that no one’s blood is redder. This short phrase emphasizes that all life is of equal and infinite worth. So at first glance, ignoring the rules is not permitted. You are not allowed to sacrifice someone else’s life to save your own. The exception is a case of self-defense when the other person is actively trying to harm you. But someone who is eligible to get the vaccine is not actively harming you. They are following the rules that we are all bound by.
At the same time, Judaism also has thought robustly about self-endangerment. As a general principle, we are not allowed to put ourselves in harm’s way. Yet we are often permitted to do so to save others. This ethical stance allows doctors to care for infectious patients. That’s what our front-line workers have been doing throughout the pandemic.
Two leading authorities on medical ethics in the 20th century were Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Eliezer Waldenberg. They actually argued that when there is definite danger to rescuers, they may not endanger their lives. Coronavirus has caused a half-million deaths. We all need to be cautious. But it does not fall into a definite or certain danger such that one would be permitted to cheat and get a vaccine before one’s group is approved. Moreover, the ways in which it poses danger can be highly mitigated by mask wearing and social distancing.
To cheat and get vaccinated when you are not eligible is to imagine that your life is more valuable than another person’s. For all of the reasons given, and many more besides, vaccine cheating is not permitted under Jewish law.
Moreover, this is not a victimless crime. It is possible that your actions could be directly responsible for killing someone. Just because we can’t ascertain who that person is, and we may never know their face, our culpability would still be there. Invisibility is not innocence. Cheating in this instance is no different than holding a gun up to someone in a vaccine line so you can take that person’s place.
3. What if I want to do the right thing, but also am very worried about my health and well-being? Is there something I can do besides waiting my turn?
First of all, it is so important that we continue to mask and practice social distancing. That remains true whether or not one has received the vaccine.
Secondly, most of us want to get vaccinated as soon as we are eligible. Most of us will also do the right thing and not jump the line. I hope that is true of all Neveh Shalom congregants. For those of us who want to do the right thing but are far down the list, what ethical actions can be taken to get inoculated sooner?
By now, most of us know that the two major vaccines are highly perishable. Once they are defrosted, they have a short shelf-life. Judaism is quite concerned with unnecessary waste, bal tashchit. While the vaccination sites are now much more tightly run than initially, with less waste, I see no ethical reason why someone should not go to clinics at the end of the day to see if there are left over vaccine doses. It is actually praise-worthy to follow the news reports and if you hear of a site that has extra doses, you should go there and get a shot, regardless of what group you are in. Such an approach may take up time, and may require that you go back several times before you can get a shot. But it seems to reasonably balance our obligations to one another and society with our desire to protect ourselves.
Which brings me to one final point. It may come to our attention, via social media or elsewhere, that someone who we don’t believe is eligible got inoculated. We would do well to listen to our Sages who stated dan kol adam l’chaf zekhut. We should give people the benefit of the doubt. There could well be extenuating circumstances which we don’t know about. There will always be people who cheat. At some point, probably everyone has cheated in some way, large or small.
Our Jewish obligation is to ensure that we are doing the right thing as individuals. If you have the opportunity to teach people without shaming them, you can explain to them why you won’t be someone who cuts into line. Maybe that will make them rethink their own choices.
Shabbat Table Talk
A number of years back, I was at DMV, picking up my number ticket at the front. On top of that machine, someone had left a much lower number. I debated whether to use it or not. In the end, I did, and felt bad about doing so. I suspect most of us have taken advantage of something similar. Maybe when we were kids, maybe last week. The following questions ask about your “DMV moment.”
- When have you cut a line? What was happening?
- How did you justify your actions?
- If everyone used the same justifications you did, what would the outcome have been?
- Did you experience any remorse afterwards?
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