“If a rabbi did say ‘you have to vaccinate,’ we wouldn't”: Unveiling the secular logics of religious exemption and opposition to vaccination

Ben Kasstan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Maintaining ‘faith’ in vaccination has emerged as a public health challenge amidst outbreaks of preventable disease among religious minorities and rising claims to ‘exemption’ from vaccine mandates. Outbreaks of measles and coronavirus have been particularly acute among Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in North America, Europe and Israel, yet no comparative studies have been conducted to discern the shared and situated influences on vaccine decision-making.

This paper synthesises qualitative research into vaccine decision-making among Orthodox Jews in the United Kingdom and Israel during the 2014-15 and 2018-19 measles epidemics, and 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic. The methods integrate 66 semi-structured informal interviews conducted with parents, formal and informal healthcare practitioners, and religious leaders, as well as analysis of tailored non-vaccination advocacy events and literature.

The paper argues that the discourse of ‘religious’ exemption and opposition to vaccination obscures the diverse practices and philosophies that inform vaccine decisions, and how religious law and leaders form a contingent influence. Rather than viewing religion as the primary framework through which vaccine decisions are made, Orthodox Jewish parents were more concerned with safety, trust and choice in similar ways to ‘secular’ logics of non-vaccination. Yet, religious frameworks were mobilised, and at times politicised, to suit medico-legal discourse of ‘exemption’ from coercive or mandatory vaccine policies. By conceptualising tensions around protection as ‘political immunities,’ the paper offers a model to inform social science understandings of how health, law and religion intersect in contemporary vaccine opposition
Original languageEnglish
Article number114052
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date21 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thanks to all research participants who contributed to this study. This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust ( 101955/Z/13/Z ) and the Lady Davis Fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem . I would like to thank Claudia Merli, Tessa Pollard, Yulia Egorova, Nurit Stadler, Lea Taragin-Zeller, John Coggan, Martyn Pickersgill, Catherine Panter-Brick and my two anonymous reviewers for their generous support. I also acknowledge Bayla Pasikov and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute for providing a Library Fellowship. This paper draws on quotations previously published in Making Bodies Kosher: The Politics of Reproduction among Haredi Jews in England (Berghahn Books, 2019).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021


  • Coronavirus
  • Measles
  • Religion
  • Israel
  • United Kingdom
  • Vaccination


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