“A Sign Upon Your Arm: How Vaccination Embodies Jewish Ethics and Obligation” - Ranana Dine

In “A Sign Upon Your Arm: How Vaccination Embodies Jewish Ethics and Obligation,” Ranana Dine takes on the question of vaccination not merely through a Jewish lens, but in deep conversation with Jewish questions of obligation towards others as well as questions of how ethics are made manifest in the body.

I'm winding the straps of my tefillin (phylacteries) around my arm and settling them on my head, as I’ve done pretty much every weekday morning for the last five years. This morning, however, something is a bit different as I carefully place the shel yad (arm phylacteries) on my arm muscle, right below where a small circle of my skin is swelling slightly. As I pull the leather straps tightly I feel the soreness, the minor side-effect from the COVID-19 vaccine I had received the day before. The bruise from the shot contrasts with the black and white pattern of my arm as I wind the last strap around my fingers reciting the prophet Hosea’s words: “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice; loving-kindness and compassion; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.”

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of Judaism, Jewish law, and vaccination: Is it permitted? (Yes.) Is it required? (Yes.) Is there a special bracha (blessing) you should say? (Sure!) But vaccination, this action done to the body, that changes the body, that protects oneself while simultaneously saving others, has significance beyond these legal discussions. What does it mean Jewishly, ethically, for us to undergo this process to build antibodies to COVID-19, measles, tetanus, and a whole range of other infectious diseases? What does it mean for us to do an act that simultaneously protects oneself and others?

Two themes in the discourse of both Jewish thought and vaccination jump out to me as significant and worthy of further discussion: embodiment and obligation. These two concepts are particularly important in the work of contemporary feminist Jewish theologian Mara Benjamin, whose book, The Obligated Self, will be discussed below in conversation with vaccination. Here we must first note that vaccination is distinctly embodied – it entails changing the body, it can leave a mark on the skin; it is an act that we can only do with our bodies; and it is only necessary because of the vulnerability of our bodies. Vaccination is also obligatory, not just for Jews, but also for every member of society who can safely receive the shot. We are obligated to be vaccinated as members of a larger society that craves and requires human interaction – as Aristotle reminds us humans are social animals. The simple fact of our humanity – embodied, vulnerable humanity – obligates us in vaccination. The band-aid, bruise, and vaccination card all become the symbols of our obligation, just like tefillin traditionally has been understood as the visual symbol of Jewish obligation, of hiyuv.

About Ranana Dine

Ranana Dine is a doctoral student in religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a research assistant at the University of Chicago’s MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics and the managing editor of Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Culture. Prior to moving to Chicago, she spent two years at the University of Cambridge where she studied for MPhils in theology and medical humanities. Her scholarship, teaching, and writing focuses on topics ranging from Jewish medical ethics, the relationship of Judaism and the visual arts, and comparative Jewish-Christian thought. Her writing has been published in both popular and academic outlets, including the Lehrhaus, the Hadar Institute, Mosaic, the British Medical Journal: Medical Humanities, and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. In Chicago, she founded and helps run the Trad Egal Shteibel, a monthly halakhic egalitarian house minyan in Lakeview/Lincoln Park, and the Lakeview Beit Midrash, a local learning community.