Agudath Israel of America fails New Jersey on measles’ vaccines

What made it join anti-vaxxers in their campaign to frustrate efforts to introduce New York State-style legislation—on the dubious claim that it would curtail religious freedom—causing the bill to eventually collapse?

A patient receiving a vaccine. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
A patient receiving a vaccine. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Dr. Andrew Lowy

Victims of the yearlong measles’ outbreak that raged in the United States between September 2018 and September 2019 concentrated in New York were the 1,487 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highest number of measles cases in America in single year in a generation. This is after the disease was accorded the status of “eliminated” in 2000, thanks to the nation’s decades-old vaccination program resulting in more than 91 percent of young children, ages 19 to 35 months, being protected against measles in 2017.

Not surprisingly, of the 1,163 cases of measles connected with the 2019 outbreaks, only one out of every 10 sufferers had been vaccinated. We also learned that three of every four cases were incubated, eventually becoming manifest in “large and close-knit Orthodox Jewish communities” in New York state and threatening “the ‘eliminated’ status of measles” in America. In New York City, the outbreak was largely confined to the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, home to the Satmar Chassidic sect that views modern culture and Zionism as noxious and inimical to its interests.

Little wonder that just after the height of the outbreak, the New York State legislature passed a law that prohibited parents from citing religious beliefs to exempt their children from the mandatory immunizations required for school. Still, that happened after bipartisan concerns about the potential violation of the constitutional religious freedom protections threatened the bill, which despite vigorous debate, passed in the Assembly and was approved by the Senate.

Just before the bill became law, a crowd of 200 impressionable ultra-Orthodox Jews attended an anti-vaccine “conference” in a Brooklyn haredi wedding hall, where they heard Hillel Handler—the disreputable “kooky anti-vaxxer” rabbi known for his extremism and toxic conspiracy theories—make common cause with a vile but charismatic figure lionized by the wider “anti-vaxx” community just hours before the CDC announced the 2019 measles tally had surpassed 1,000. The receptive audience lapped up the propagandist claim that vaccines cause autism and other diseases (universally discredited by the medical profession). A month earlier, Handler had told the same lies to a similar audience in Monsey, N.Y., the Jewish enclave an hour north of Brooklyn where the recent Hanukkah-party stabbing occurred.

Yet earlier in the year, researchers again proved the absence of any link between the MMR (measles) vaccine and autism in a four-year study of more than 650,000 Danish children, one of the largest ever conducted.

That legislators would invoke First Amendment protections on free speech to defend the willful spreading of lies and misinformation about vaccines in the middle of the largest measles outbreak in a quarter-century is cynical and populist rhetoric at best, and, at worst, immoral and unconscionable behavior. It seems no more worthy of constitutional sanction than shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

The suggestion that the law ending “religious” exemptions to vaccination compliance somehow infringes one’s religious freedom—given that no major religion prohibits it—is equally absurd. Even if they did, since when does one’s religious beliefs trump medical advice that urges vaccination not only to protect the individual, but the protection of others? While one is able to keep one’s religious beliefs to oneself, no matter the belief, one cannot keep one’s contagious disease to oneself, no matter the contagion.

Certainly, with respect to Judaism, there is absolutely no commandment, Talmudic tractate or halachic edict that has anything to say about vaccinations. Given the value that Jewish law places on the sanctity of life, were vaccines in existence during Maimonides’ lifetime and their benefits known, one might imagine the Tanach’s position on them. Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox umbrella organization that serves haredim and many Chassidim (the Satmar sect not among them) on religious, social and legal issues is clearly a force for good in the Jewish world. In keeping with that notion, Agudath has been ardently pro-vaccination and makes that crystal-clear on its website, citing its unflinching support for it.

As the measles outbreak hit its peak in May, to its great credit Agudath was actively helping officials to promote abatement of new cases by making free measles’ vaccinations available in haredi neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It also lambasted Handler for his hate-filled propaganda and his appearance at the Monsey gathering to denounce vaccination.

With such a pristine record on vaccination, what made Agudath join anti-vaxx activists in their campaign to frustrate New Jersey’s effort to introduce New York State-style legislation—on the dubious claim that it would curtail religious freedom—causing the bill to collapse this past Monday after lawmakers had capitulated to it? Why did Agudath engage in similar action to that taken by the “kooky anti-vaxxer” rabbi, having denounced him for it in Monsey?

Agudath earned itself a good dose of unfavorable reportage in Thursday’s edition of The New York Times, which suggested that, having remained quiet during the breakout of measles emanating from Agudath’s own Brooklyn epicenter, rank opportunism enabled it to summon the courage to speak up after the danger had passed. Worse, it appears to have failed to understand its constituents’ role in the genesis of the outbreak.

While Agudath attempted to justify its concerns in an incoherent argument on its website, the Times made the organization’s position clearer, being that it belatedly decided that the “underlying principle of religious accommodation … was one worth fighting for, in part because there are rare cases in which a rabbi might decide a vaccination was unwarranted.”

Agudath’s moralizing evinces two main problems: First, its decision to adopt a stance on constitutional freedoms has nothing to do with Orthodox Judaism, calling into question the choice to fight when it has no skin in that game. Doing so at a time when its constituents are targets of anti-Semitic violence indicates that it was a serious miscalculation (it has been suggested that they are not unrelated). Second, Agudath must be well aware that no halachic, rabbinic or medical principle confers on rabbis, who are unqualified to render medical opinions, the authority to pass judgment on whether a vaccine is or isn’t warranted.

In their misguided fight for a principle that does not directly affect them, they have helped kill legislation, the effect of which will inevitably cause pain, suffering and perhaps death to others. Agudath Israel of America will rue the day it meddled in the affairs of the state.

Dr. Andrew Lowy is an Orthodox Jewish physician and a freelance writer. He lives with his wife and daughter in Tucson, Ariz.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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