Skeptical haredi attitudes to vaccinations are nothing new. Earlier this year Haaretz and the rest of the secular press had a field day reporting outbreaks of measles and mumps infections in Rockland County, Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem due to parents’ unwillingness to vaccinate their children.
Now, within reasonable limits I respect a parent’s choice to make educated decisions about his or her child, even when this goes against convention or even what I would call common sense. Conventions undergo revision and improvement, and what is acceptable today may seem ridiculous tomorrow. We fondly remember the formula-industry-fueled attitude against breastfeeding in the 60’s and 70’s in the US, which in more recent times has been all but disregarded.
So much for educated decisions in RBS Bais. From my own experience I perceive a rebellious attitude among many haredim towards all scientific and, in fact, all non-haredi knowledge, as part of their crusade to dissociate themselves from the larger society in which they find themselves trapped. This leads to grasping at any and all flimsy rumors purporting to undermine extra-haredi norms and credibility, paradoxically leading from the rejection of prevalent science to quacks and con-artists (not unlike how the disregard of academic or literary modern Hebrew makes many a Litvish yeshiva student sound like a fish merchant hawking his wares in Machane Yehuda).
Medicine, in which humanity has invested so much of its scientific research efforts, really is the perfect target for this type of adolescent-style rebelliousness.
First, doctors are the first to admit that medicine cannot explain everything, and positions are constantly evolving due to statistical studies and new discoveries. People can fall ill and die without modern medicine having a clue as to the cause, and other people will recover without the aid of any treatment. This allows a layman to wonder whether the field is morally sound or perhaps linked to commercial or more sinister motives.
Second, it is one of the few places in which closed communities intimately meet state-run institutions (another telling point of convergence is the justice system – more about that some other time).
And third, this meeting between individual and institution takes place in a relatively public forum – everyone will see you walking into tipat chalav with your infant.
Laying no claims to being a torah scholar, I have grave misgivings about the authenticity of rabanim taking a stand on general health matters. Let’s face it, most haredi poskim don’t have a clue about modern medical research, statistical studies – and how many of them can even read English? Instead, this is part of the general effort to control every last facet of the community’s life, to embellish their distance from the rest of us, and to play power politics when convenient - whether or not the rulings make much sense halachically - or in this case medically.
This evokes the 2003 riots against(!) separate Egged buses in RBS, and the protests about damage to questionably Jewish gravesites despite rabbinic sources permitting this for the public good (well, except when the graves are in a new haredi neighborhood, when the matter is taken care of in one afternoon).
Politics is politics and I am certainly not saying that haredi askanim are – or even should be - any more moral and altruistic than their Zionist and secular counterparts. If your business interests compel you to get 400 bachurim out on the street to block Egged buses, such behavior isn’t really unprecedented or extraordinary in the national scene.
What gets to me is when this maneuvering plays with the minds of unwitting and often naïve young parents. When in doubt, I feel that one should follow the advice of a career professional, particularly in decisions relating to the medical care of young children. Haredi families are getting the opposite message: “Don’t believe anything doctors tell you. Don’t ever take vaccinations, and don’t believe any of their advice unless Chadash can round up enough rabanim to publicly support it. And if you see your neighbor walking into kupat cholim on Nahar Hayarden St., report it to the Shidduch Status Police immediately for further investigation.”
And let’s face the facts. Unlike some other extreme religious groups who go all the way to martyrdom, Hatzoloh marches the kid straight into the ER in Ein Karem or Shaarei Zedek when something goes very wrong, where the physicians - until then outside the Pale - deal with whatever is left.
Back to this article. After all that kvetching you would think I would be pleased to see so many members of the Gaonic class coming out in support of the flu vaccination, but alas I am not. The subtext of the article clearly reads “OK – but only this time! Don’t do anything unless all of the Geonim get together and decide it is kosher. We decide when you can listen to kupat cholim, in fact, we control them, and as soon as we are unhappy, we’ll just push the button and send 100,000 people to the post office to switch to Meuchedet”.*
* This may already have happened – in today’s exposé on corruption among the higher echelons of the Meuchedet HMO we are told of a former haredi MK getting a nice consulting fee for illegally soliciting HMO memberships. Hard to believe he went around the streets of Bnei Brak convincing people to switch over. If he used the more effective method of paying or otherwise incentivizing rabanim to order their flock to do so, well, you can’t help asking how this will influence the next negotiation about whether to allow kids to be vaccinated against fatal diseases.
[See Part II]
[See Part II]