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Taking a Shot

02/18/2021 05:41:20 PM

Feb18

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a) proposes a theoretical situation, “Two people were traveling and one of them had a flask of water in his hand. If both of them drink, they would die; and if one of them drinks, he would reach settlement…" Rabbi Akiva came and taught: "The life of your brother is with you" (Vayikra 25:36) "[this means] your life takes precedence over the life of your fellow.” For the next few months, that text has a surprisingly practical application even for those of us not on a desert journey, as our country struggles through the complicated process of COVID-19 vaccine distribution. I’ve received many questions about the ethical dilemmas posed by this process.   

My colleague, Rabbi Micah Peltz, wrote on this topic. Click here to read his thoughts. I agree with him on many points  including that once vaccination is readily available, it is an obligation to receive it, given that there is a positive obligation to preserve one’s own life and the lives of others, which far outweighs any potential risks from the vaccines available in the US.   I also agree that, from a Jewish perspective, institutions and organizations may require proof of vaccination for participation in activities. 

In the meanwhile, while supplies and access are limited, the question of who should be prioritized to receive vaccines is fraught. Arguments could be made for:

  • Those who are at the greatest risk of death due to age and other medical conditions
  • Those who are at the greatest risk of getting exposed
  • Those who are at greatest risk of exposing others
  • Workers who are essential to society


It’s also clear that the system, as implemented, does not always live up to the principles. Each state has decided to apply those guidelines differently. For example, teachers are eligible in Alabama, but not in Georgia. Until recently, ages 65-75 were eligible in Georgia, but not in Massachusetts, and for clergy, it is vice versa.

There are some significant inequities. Leaving aside the "have" and "have-nots" among the nations, even within our own society, those who are internet-savvy or able to travel have an advantage. Meanwhile, despite improvements in the system, many doses are going to waste or going to people who are, by all accounts, lower on the priority list. Our congregational staff and volunteers have undertaken an effort to make sure that every eligible member of the congregation is vaccinated. We’ve almost completed the process of reaching out to every member over 65, and we have already helped a number of people who were not able to navigate the system on their own. 

For most of us, the question of how society should allocate doses is primarily an intellectual exercise. The dilemma that we may in fact face is whether to push to receive the vaccine or wait. Rabbi Peltz wrote that  “Using one’s connections, influence or financial means to move up the vaccine line has the potential to put other people’s lives in danger, and is therefore forbidden by Jewish law.” I agree with him that it is not appropriate to lie or misrepresent one’s self in order to receive vaccination, but I must put an important asterisk on his opinion, based on the statement of Rabbi Akiva.

When stuck in a desert, one may not steal another’s water, but one is also not obligated to give up one’s own life for another.  While the risk is greater for some than for others, all adults are in some measure of danger, which may not always be aligned with the criteria set by the state. I have a friend in another state whose elderly mother was eligible for vaccination, and whose father was not, despite the father having several serious medical conditions. His mother was present and healthy at his father’s funeral. Just this week, our congregation suffered the loss of a 57-year-old member from COVID-19. Also, while being vaccinated may not totally prevent one from spreading COVID-19, it likely reduces the risk to others to some extent, which is why caregivers to the elderly are prioritized. 

I believe that if one has the opportunity to be vaccinated before one’s “turn,” that one is within the bounds of ethics to accept that opportunity. This is particularly true if one is at a heightened risk of death, or of exposing others, but each of us is at some risk of both. This interpretation is particularly relevant given the reality that the system, as implemented, does not guarantee that a dose that we reject would go to someone more deserving, or indeed would be used at all.

The Jewish obligation to protect one’s own life means that we do not have to prioritize another’s life over our own, but does not diminish our requirement to protect the lives of others when we have the opportunity to do so. We have an absolute obligation to continue to protect the community as a whole, and the most vulnerable among us, by making responsible choices about how we act (masking, distancing, avoiding unsafe gatherings) and making sure that we facilitate vaccine access for those who might not have the tools to get it on their own.

Sat, May 8 2021 26 Iyyar 5781