Friday, November 16, 2018 -
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Is there an doctor in the house?

THE current debate over health care reform is more than a bit disconcerting. The constant barrage of media coverage and political mud-slinging has given me chronic headaches — which I’ve just discovered aren’t covered under my existing insurance plan!

I’m hardly an expert in the field of medicine (please don’t repeat that to my kids!) but even with  a law degree, I can’t make much sense of House Bill 3200, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.

What is clear is that our current health care system is not working at all for the more than 40 million uninsured Americans.

It’s only partially working for the millions of others whose premiums rise at an exponential rate and whose deductibles and uncovered health needs deplete bank accounts, while catastrophic illness often leads to bankruptcy.

Health care reform is undoubtedly a political, economic and medical issue, but it is also a moral and theological one.

As Jews, we can offer a unique perspective by examining the issues using  Jewish ethics as our framework and Jewish texts as our primary source.

Our diagnosis of the problem begins with different questions and focuses on the duties and responsibilities we owe ourselves and others,  rather than what we might claim as rights for ourselves at the expense of others.

Our first question should not be: “What health care am I entitled to?”  Instead, we must ask:

“What am I obligated to do to ensure my own medical well-being?

“What are my responsibilities to my family, my employees, the members of my community to ensure their health?

“What does the community need to do to take care of those who need medical services?”

MANY Jewish texts can help us answer these questions. The Torah makes it clear that all human beings are precious, created in G-d’s image; it commands us to take action to protect the lives of others. 

Leviticus 19:16 teaches:  “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This obligation to save a life (pikuah nefesh in Hebrew) is so sacred that most all other Jewish mitzvot are suspended in order to fulfill it, including the Sabbath. Perhaps this is the real reason why Jews have always been drawn to the practice of medicine — because the physician is seen as acting not on behalf of his purse or patient, but as acting in the service of G-d.

The duty to care for our own bodies is found in Deuteronomy.  G-d instructs us to “take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” Because our bodies are viewed as vessels of the soul, we must keep them healthy.

Advice on how to stay healthy comes from the great 12th-century doctor and rabbi, Maimonides, and includes such things as eating properly, getting plenty of rest and exercise, breathing clean air, moderating our emotions and properly eliminating. Not so different from what we are told to do today!

But to stay healthy, we are also entitled to have access to a doctor when we need one. Over 800 years ago, Maimonides clarified the Jewish position on the current debate when he wrote: “One who is ill has not only the right but also the duty to seek medical aid.”

Maimonides listed health care as the first of the 10 most important communal services a city should provide.

What we glean from our tradition is that we are responsible for our own health, but also that when we need a doctor we have both the duty and the right to one.

WHAT about our obligation to others who need care? The Torah commands us “to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan and the poor,” the most vulnerable members of society.

This obligation stems from the idea that every human being is entitled to the basic resources required to live a dignified, self-sustaining life. Jewish tradition has interpreted this to include health care. That’s why Jewish communities throughout history have always created systems to ensure that their citizens had access to health services. Doctors were even required to reduce their rates for poor patients. If the cost were still too high, subsidies were established to cover them.

The Jewish responsibility to care for the most vulnerable can be extrapolated to the rights of women today. Women are disproportionately affected  by the current debate because they generally require more services than men.

Women confront family planning, pregnancy and birth complications. They are regularly denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and are more likely to work part-time or in small companies that don’t provide insurance. More medically vulnerable, women deserve community support for sufficient medical coverage and services.

FOR all of these reasons, the overwhelming majority of Jewish organizations, including UJC, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, AJC and all denominations (to varying degrees) support health care reform.

The Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement has been a leading proponent for health care reform and offers a helpful guide for understanding the terms, options and choices in the current debate, as well as tips to promote health care reform at www.JewsForHealthCare?Reform.org.

The idea that everyone is entitled to medical care is stated plainly in the Talmud: “Whoever is in pain, lead them to a physician.”
It was a revolutionary and sound idea a thousand years ago; it is hard to believe that we are still debating it today.   



Amy Lederman

IJN Columnist | Reflections


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