President Joe Biden announced last week that all Americans would be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine by May 1. In the meantime, states are following vaccination schedules that prioritize the most vulnerable, including the elderly and those with underlying conditions. But some people who do not yet qualify for the vaccine are finding ways to circumvent the rules, whether through personal connections, lying about their physical condition or through providers who are not checking eligibility.
Is it ethical to “cut in line” ahead of elderly people or the immunocompromised in order to get a COVID-19 vaccination shot early? The answer is a resounding no, according to four local rabbis.
“It seems pretty plain to me that when you have a conversation about ethics, about fairness and justice, that line jumping contravenes those standards of justice and what’s right,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “It’s very hard to see how anyone could make an argument this is ethical.”
When Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills was asked about the topic, he provided notes on the Conservative movement’s “Vaccination and Ethical Questions Posed by COVID-19 Vaccines,” which received unanimous backing from the Rabbinic Assembly in early January.
The Assembly’s stance on the importance of getting COVID-19 vaccines is clear.
“The Torah commands us to ‘Be careful and watch yourselves,’ which is understood by the Talmud to mean that we should avoid danger whenever possible. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, we find the mitzvah of placing a parapet, or guardrail, around one’s roof. This is understood to mean that we should actively take steps to protect ourselves and others,” Rabbi Micah Peltz writes in the assembly’s findings.
Greenbaum added he’s familiar with four moral principles to guide who gets vaccines and in what order: treating people fairly; favoring the worst-off on the basis of the “rule of rescue”; utilitarianism to maximize benefits; and promoting social usefulness, such as vaccinating those on the front lines of fighting COVID-19.
Favoring the worst-off would lead to prioritizing those who are most vulnerable, such as the elderly, the immunocompromised and minority groups who historically have been discriminated against in health care, Greenbaum said.
Since October, Rabbi Dovid Small, a former hospital chaplain, has been working with the elderly and infirm as the director of pastoral care for the Jewish Association on Aging.
“There’s a concept that if someone is in danger, they need to be tended to,” Small told the Chronicle. “And people who are elderly are in greater danger. So, there’s a certain understanding or sensitivity that needs to be heeded when we’re talking about [COVID-19] vaccinations.”
“It’s important we look after each other,” he added. “That’s a basic principle of Judaism.”
Rabbi Doris Dyen, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves as a hospital chaplain at UPMC Magee-Women’s Hospital and as spiritual leader for the Makom HaLev minyan. She sees Jewish thought as a little bit at odds with Western consumer-driven thinking.
“Our broader culture’s message is often ‘Every person for him- or herself,’ but Judaism is, at its core, a religion of community,” Dyen said. “It’s about the individual as part of a larger community.”
She cites the phrase “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“That’s a statement that we all have to live together,” she said. “We should want for our neighbors what we want for ourselves. And all of us should be thinking of this.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.