Rabbi Pinḥas Elijah Hurwitz was an itinerant Lithuanian scholar whose travels took him to Galicia, Poland, Prussia, Holland, Hungary and England. In 1806 he published an expanded edition of his popular 1797 compendium titled Sefer ha-Berit, “the Book of the Covenant'' in the Czech city of Brunn (Brno). Ostensibly a commentary on an obscure kabbalistic text, it actually served as an introduction to developments in modern science and philosophy. The author regarded knowledge of these subjects as prerequisites for the attainment of holiness, mystical perfection, and even prophecy.
In this connection Rabbi Hurwitz incorporated a detailed account of the very recent medical triumph in the battle against smallpox. He retold the tale of the English physician Dr. Edward Jenner of Gloucester who surmised in 1796 that the known immunity of dairy farmers and milkmaids to smallpox was a side-effect of their prior infections from cattle afflicted with cowpox, which was caused by a very similar microbial strain. Jenner therefore proposed to vaccinate humans with the same fluid from cowpox pustules that seemed to produce immunity in the milkmaids (he coined the term “vaccinate,” derived from the Latin for “cow”). This treatment proved to be astoundingly successful and became the basis for all subsequent inoculations in which a small quantity of a microorganism from a disease is injected into a body in order to stimulate the immunization process. Rabbi Hurvitz provided his readers with meticulous descriptions of the inoculation process and its physiological effects on the recipients, along with a firm assurance that the practice was universally effective and completely safe.
Indeed, many people were repelled at the prospect of being injected intentionally with viral matter, and hence the procedure gave rise to intense discussions among authorities on Jewish religious law. In his collection of responsa Zera‘ Emet (“seed of truth”) published in 1795, Rabbi Ishmael ben Abraham Hakohen of Modena was called upon to settle an ongoing communal controversy: One faction supported vaccination on the grounds that it was practiced by the royalty of the time, was sanctioned by prominent Italian rabbis and had a successful track record. Opposing them were those who questioned its effectiveness and insisted that “the portion of Jacob should not stir up the destructive powers by infecting people with a disease that is mentioned in the Torah as ‘infectious’ [dibbuḳ]” and might therefore be regarded as a form of divinely ordained retribution.”
A very similar disagreement underlay the publication of a work titled ‘Aleh Terufah (“leaf of healing”) by Alexander (Abraham) ben Solomon of Hamburg, a scholar originally from Nancy, France, who had resided for many years in the Hague and then migrated to London. ‘Aleh Terufah, published in 1785, was an expansion of a shorter essay written in 1768. Its author attested that his determination to devote a discussion to this topic was rooted in tragic events that beset his own family: His beloved young daughter had perished from the disease in Nancy—owing to the incompetence of the attending physician—and then a similar fate befell his son in the Hague.
Although these authors were apparently unaware of each other’s studies, the issues discussed by Ishmael and Alexander were remarkably similar. They devoted considerable intellectual effort to situating the controversy over vaccination within the complex talmudic rules governing the saving or risking of human life whether by active or passive means. For purposes of making informed decisions in critical situations, rabbinic discourse strove to define precise degrees of probability and doubt, and to distinguish between cures for existing ailments and prevention of potential afflictions in the future (though this last distinction had little relevance in an actual plague situation).
Our authors concluded that the decision ultimately boiled down to whether, based on a consensus of competent medical opinion, it would be more dangerous to administer the vaccinations or to refrain from them. Indeed, a statistic that recurred in all their discussions—and was presumably an exaggerated one—claimed that only (or: not even) one in a thousand instances of inoculation is unsuccessful (but not that it is harmful), and that any failures can likely be blamed on the patients’ failure to properly follow the physicians’ instructions.
The traditionalist religious mentality is often characterized by resistance to change of any sort, and by an unwillingness to acknowledge innovations that were not anticipated by the authoritative texts. The exciting scientific discoveries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were thus viewed by many with great suspicion as threats to orthodoxy: If our sacred writings and wise sages did not mention smallpox vaccination, then it is not an acceptable therapeutic option.
It was in order to fend off this static perception of scientific knowledge that our authors had to remind their readers of the unprecedented progress that science had recently made in several areas. Sefer Ha-Berit and ‘Aleh Terufah both cite the successful flights of manned hot-air and helium balloons as proof that science is constantly progressing, and “there was revealed to later generations what was concealed from the earlier ones.”
Rabbi Hurwitz concluded gravely that “anyone who is remiss in this matter, to the point that their children are fatally afflicted with the illness, shall be brought to justice before the [celestial] tribunal and will indeed be punished in accordance with divine law...”
Ashkenazic tradition tended to be wary of medical science because it diminishes people’s mindfulness of their ultimate dependence on divine assistance. However, Alexander of Hamburg allied himself with the position of Maimonides who had denounced those who knowingly refrain from carrying out life-saving medical procedures. He compared such irresponsible fools to starving persons who refuse to accept nourishment because it supposedly compromises their absolute reliance on the Almighty.
Alexander stressed that we ought to appreciate Dr. Jenner’s medical breakthrough as a special instance of divine compassion. We would do better to appreciate how God has alleviated the suffering of humankind by bestowing upon scientists the intelligence that enables them to discover a safe and effective cure for a deadly plague.