When the current administration announced that it would prioritize health-care reform and seek to propel America toward a sustainable system of universal health care, I thought: finally an issue on which Orthodox Jews can join together to support reform. After all, the Torah and the rabbinic writings unequivocally enjoin us to heal the sick and to enable to sick to be healed. If the secular state was championing an issue that speaks to our deepest religious communal values, there could only be cause for celebration.
And yet, recent articles and discussions suggest that, to the contrary, the majority of the Orthodox Jewish community has taken a stand in opposition to the proposed reforms that would help America become a society that can heal all of its sick. Are these dissenters cynical to proposals such as the nonprofit health-care cooperative or a public insurance plan? Regardless of the reasoning, the Torah has been excluded from this discourse. Let’s consider what the Torah has to say about health care:
The Talmud (Gittin 61a) teaches us explicitly that we are equally responsible for the health of non-Jews as we are for Jews. Even further, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 336:1) teaches that there is not only a mitzvah to heal the sick but that one is considered to be shedding blood when health services are withheld. This care mandates not only medical assistance but also access to necessary drugs (Yoreh Deah 336:3), as it is forbidden to charge more than an appropriate price for medicine. An immense task; upon whom does this requirement fall?
A brief glance at the great 20th-century Jewish legal authorities is enlightening. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 5:4) ruled that the community must set up collective funds to ensure that all sick can receive necessary care and sustenance. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minkhat Shlomo v. 2, 86:4) explained how the obligation actually may fall directly upon individual citizens to care for those in our communities. Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Chaim David Halevy, however, argued that the obligation was not upon the community but upon the government to ensure that all citizens have access to adequate medical care.
We are left with a rich discourse about the necessary means. What is clear from all of the sources, though, is that Jewish law places a high priority on caring for the sick in our midst (Jew and gentile alike) and demands collective responsibility. While we may not have a Jewish community fund (kuppah) in operation today as in previous eras, we have access as citizens to the most powerful government in the world at the most pressing of times, as the end of the congressional summer recess rapidly approaches. What will the Jewish response be?
Whatever opinions we form about health-care reform, we need to take seriously the fact that the Torah has a clear approach – and we need to acknowledge to ourselves and to our communities when we bypass that approach. The consequences of ignoring the ethical values that emerge from our tradition are dire for many of our fellow citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike – where an estimated 16 percent of Americans (47 million) are uninsured.
Now is the time. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, the United States ranks 45th among nations in life expectancy, falling behind 44 other nations that offered some form of universal health coverage. The federally chartered Institute of Medicine published the information that more than 22,000 deaths in America are due to the lack of proper health insurance and access to needed care. Additionally, the nation annually experiences around 750,000 bankruptcies due to medical expenses that were not covered by insurance, leaving more than 2 million people – taking into consideration affected family members – tragically at a loss.
Now is the time for an Orthodox response to this crisis. In a country of such wealth, how has the United States allowed this situation to develop? In a time of historically unprecedented Jewish influence, how has this not been at the top of our community’s agenda? Do the ancient values of Jewish law not speak to the contemporary crisis? By not acting, we ourselves become implicated. On health issues, the rabbis remind us of the biblical command: “Lo taamod al dam re’echa: Do not stand by the blood of thy neighbor!”
Some cynics suggest that serious health-care reform is only a project of the liberals, but that is shortsighted. Jews of all political persuasions have been leaders in establishing retirement homes, hospitals, and other health institutions in America for more than a century. Now the real test is on the line to hear the commanding ethical voice at one of the most crucial times in American history where Jewish power and influence are at an all-time high.
The American Jewish community must join the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the United Jewish Communities, and the National Council of Jewish Women, among others, to be at the forefront of helping to ensure that Congress enables health-care reform that protects all Americans. It is not only in our Jewish interest to protect our own vulnerable people but is also the moral imperative of our ancient tradition. The command from our upcoming parasha resonates throughout the ages: “Choose life!”