Guidelines for the Vaccine Debate

As always, Rabbi Shafran’s articulate and compelling op-ed “Vaccination Proclamation” (Hamodia Prime, June 26, 2019) raised very important points.
Indeed, no matter how passionate a debate may become, one should never resort to belittling or personally attacking an opponent.
At the same time, I respectfully disagree with his attempt to prove this point by quoting the Gemara in Yevamos that tells us that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, despite disagreeing about the halachah regarding an important marriage law, took pains to maintain shidduchim among their respective members.
Like all disputes among Tanna’im or Amora’im in Chazal regarding matters of halachah, the rule of eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chaim applies to the disagreement between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai as well. Both opinions were taught to Moshe Rabbeinu and were part of the Oral Torah we received at Har Sinai. Both views were true, the question was which one should be the accepted halachah.
This concept does not apply to the debate about vaccinations.
In recent weeks, I have been contacted by a number of individuals who were very agitated about a pair of interviews I did on this subject. I can readily understand why they were distressed about it. At the same time I was deeply concerned by the fact that virtually every one of these individuals — who have no prior expertise in medicine nor in the applicable halachos —admitted to me that they reached their views on this matter on their own, often overruling the opinion of their doctor and their posek.
In an age when so much information —– and misinformation — is so readily available, it is tempting to declare oneself an expert in a field he or she really understands little of. Unless one has the background and expertise in how to read medical studies and analyze the fine print, one can easily reach erroneous, even dangerous conclusions.
What is so sorely lacking in this approach is the fundamental Torah principle of hachna’ah — the ability to recognize that there are some people who understand certain things better than we do. If all of us would start taking the “I” out of this debate, and start accepting the opinions of those who are wiser and more knowledgeable than we are, then we would be much closer to achieving the truth.

Avraham Y. Heschel

Rabbi Shafran responds:
You raise an undeniably important point. But, in the end, not every chiluk is mechalek; not every distinction makes a difference.
Yes, in the realm of higher Truth, both Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel’s approaches are valid. But, as you note, only one can be the halachah. In the here-and-now realm, only one opinion can be “right” — that is to say, the right path for Jews to follow. Beis Hillel in fact considered the psak of Beis Shammai to result in issurei kares and mamzerus. And, to avoid their machlokes taking a societal toll, Beis Shammai kept ledgers of their marriages, which they made available to Beis Hillel.
So I don’t see the fact that in the realm of Torah Sheb’al Peh min HaShamayim both approaches are viable to have impact on, so to speak, the bottom line.
What’s more, many anti-vaxxers do in fact invoke credentialed medical professionals and thus see themselves not as making their own medical judgments but as choosing their authorities. You and I may (and do) consider those choices to be unjustified. But the choosers, of course, would disagree.
In any event, you raise an important distinction, whether or not we agree about its making a difference. And I know that our own machlokes here is l’shem Shamayim.