Anti-Vaxxers Are Hurting Religious Freedom Now


By Rabbi David Shabtai, MD  

A hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people. Consider that World War I, which immediately preceded the pandemic, had just taken a toll of another 16 million lives. But aside from some supportive therapy of rest and hydration, there was scant little to do to treat and stem the tide of this rapidly spreading infection.

Today, with a simple jab of a needle, we have the ability to possibly prevent the flu. Historically speaking, that’s a phenomenal achievement. True, the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective. Sometimes it is not even not even 50 percent effective. But imagine what a parent in 1919 would have given to be able to give their child even an additional 10 percent chance of survival.

The vaccine revolution is one of our greatest scientific and medical achievements. We are now able to prevent death and diseases that plagued humanity for centuries without mercy. And yet today, we are witnessing our society become victims of our success. With so many of these diseases virtually—but not completely—eradicated, a small minority seems to think that vaccines harm more than they help.

Let’s be clear: The anti-vaxxer view is complete nonsense. Hundreds of studies from all over the world have established the safety profile of vaccines. There is absolutely no link to autism, despite how many times this myth is repeated. Vaccines don’t stunt growth or cause food allergies. Every professional medical association on the planet testifies to their safety and advocates for their usage. And now in addition to the health risks created by anti-vaxxers, they’re creating a public policy risk, too.

Many vaccines are most effective when administered early in life and it’s one of the reasons school districts require them as a condition of admission.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Anti-vaxxers want out of these requirements, but they are hard to come by. Exemptions exist for children who, for valid medical reasons, can’t be vaccinated. But “I read bad stuff on the internet” isn’t a valid medical reason. And so some anti-vaxxers are now trying to shield themselves behind “religious exemptions” to vaccinations.

The idea behind religious exemptions is that while we as a society advocate, encourage, and support vaccination, we value individual liberty even more. Practically speaking, it means that if your particular religion opposes vaccination—meaning that getting a vaccine would violate the tenets of your faith—then society will not force them upon you, and still allow your children to enter the public schools. The (entirely sensible) reason for the religious exception is that religious freedom occupies a special place in American law and political philosophy. It is right that it should exist.[

The problem is that this “religious exemption” waiver is being used as a catch-all excuse for people whose objections to vaccination are based on medical illiteracy, not religious conviction.

Obtaining a religious exemption can be easier than you might expect. In many places, parents simply declare in front of the board of education (or health) that immunization requirements violate their religious sensibilities. As public institutions, these boards cannot, do not, and should not make any determination as to the religious content of the parents’ declaration. They, therefore, grant the exemption to nearly anybody who asks for one.

At least that’s how it is in the public schools. It’s different for parochial and religious schools.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]When parents submit a “religious exemption” they are stating that their religion prohibits vaccinations and it’s precisely on religious tolerance grounds that the exemption was granted. So for example, you get Jewish parents enrolling their kids in a yeshivah together with their “religious exemption.”

The problem is that Judaism doesn’t actually oppose vaccinations. But unlike public institutions, yeshivas, Catholic schools, and madrassas, are free to—and should—define the terms and boundaries of the religious instruction they provide.

Modern day Jewish law is complicated. Unlike Catholicism, there is no centralized body determining normative practice. Instead, there is a generally accepted hierarchy of rabbinic decisors, but ultimately, each rabbi is left to navigate these challenges in forging a path forward while embracing and being subject to a rich rabbinic tradition. But even within all of that diversity, the vast overwhelming consensus of rabbinic opinion is that Jewish religious law not only permits, but actually demands and requires vaccinations. And while a fringe minority opinion argues that vaccinations aren’t a religious obligation, there is absolutely no rabbinic opinion arguing that they are forbidden.

Meaning, that while we can argue about whether or not you have to, nobody says that you aren’t allowed to.

So when a parent submits a “religious exemption” to a Jewish school, they are effectively stating that they aren’t practicing Judaism, but some other flavor of belief that they concocted on their own.

This isn’t a particularly Jewish problem. It’s happening in Catholic schools, too. (There are virtually no organized religions that prohibit vaccinations.)

There is, of course, a problem: The governmental agencies that provide for religious exemptions are not able to, and frankly, shouldn’t be in the business of determining what constitutes an “authentic” religious belief. Religious and parochial schools though, do and should have an opinion about the religion that they are teaching. A yeshivah or Catholic school has a right to define guidelines and parameters of accepted Jewish beliefs and practices necessary for admission.

It’s therefore not only within the yeshivah’s right to reject such a student, it must do so to maintain the integrity of their Tradition, fealty to Jewish law, and responsibility to the rest of the student body.

It’s true, that this is only a band-aid for a small percentage of our country’s schools. It doesn’t address the broader problem nor broach the larger issue of balancing religious tolerance and public health. But it’s a start.

Anti-vaxxers will argue that unvaccinated children don’t immediate risks—but only theoretical, epidemiological risks. But think about it this way: If a child brought a gun to school that was loaded only with blanks, that gun would pose no risk to others. But you can’t let every child bring a gun to school because, eventually, one of them won’t be loaded with blanks. It will have real bullets. And the only way for most of us to distinguish between blanks and actual bullets is after we’ve been hit.

But there’s another risk here, too. By willfully conflating political opinions with religious beliefs, anti-vaxxers who seek religious exemptions are weakening everyone else’s religious freedom protections. This lunacy puts both our civic health and our physical health at risk. And it ought not to be condoned. 

This article was posted to The Weekly Standard on November 26th and can be found at

Rabbi David Shabtai, MD serves as the rabbi Sephardic Minyan of the Boca Raton Synagogue. Rabbi Shabtai received his semikhah from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, affiliate of Yeshiva University and his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine. He has a particular interest in medical halakhah and Jewish bioethics and has authored, Defining the Moment: Understanding Brain Death in Halakhah and writes and lectures on a wide range of medical and scientific ethical issues. He is married to Monica and together are parents to Gavriel, Elyada, Eliyahu, Rivkah, Yosef Chaim, and Aharon.