Choose Wisely

There is a principle in Jewish tradition that one cannot go “shopping” for a rabbinic opinion. A person should stick with a rabbi and follow that rabbi’s rulings no matter what. Otherwise, the pluralistic nature of Judaism could be exploited for personal gain. Since one can probably find a rabbi for every possible position on a matter, one can simply go looking for the desired outcome.

This strategy undermines the authority of the community because it puts the layperson in charge, not the rabbi. Jewish practice becomes whatever the individual wants to do. In other religions, such as Catholicism, this problem is minimized with a strict hierarchy. The pope determines what is allowed or not and everyone below him must follow suit.

In the Jewish community each rabbi has autonomy, which allows flexibility but also leads to the possibility of gaming the system. In the liberal streams, lay people often pick and choose what aspects of observance they decide to follow, and sometimes don’t even feel the need to go shopping for a rabbinic opinion to back up their decision.

In Orthodoxy, there is a greater need for rabbinic approval, but lay people will look for an opinion that fits their wishes, even if it goes against the majority of the authorities. There is a small, but significant, group of Orthodox parents that refuse to vaccinate their children. They rely on the opinion of a few rabbis, against the position of the main institutions of Orthodoxy.

I experienced this issue a few years ago when I was on the board of my children’s Jewish day school. As the rabbinic voice on the board, I was consulted about a school family who wished to keep their children unvaccinated. They were unable to get a medical exemption and so they applied for a religious exemption.

The dilemma of the religious waiver is, who gives it? Perhaps you can find a rabbi who will give a Jewish justification for not vaccinating, but in New Jersey, where we have freedom of religion, this is actually unnecessary. Here everyone is allowed to interpret their faith for themselves. The parents only need to state that they wish to have an exemption because of their religious beliefs.

The incident brought up all kinds of questions about authority. Ultimately, I consulted with some colleagues and we determined that there was no Jewish justification for not vaccinating a child. In fact, the principle of pikuah nefesh, the priority of saving a life, dictates that children must be vaccinated. We could not allow children in the school to potentially be exposed to life threatening illnesses, and because we were a religious school, we did not need to grant the exemption.

Free will is a value we cherish both in Jewish tradition and democracy, but both systems rely on education to ensure that people make the right decisions. We can’t force people to do what is beneficial, but we all are affected by the choices made by others, for good or ill.

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