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‘America deserves better’: A call for health-care reform

 
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Providing quality, universal health care as a core societal obligation is a 2,000-year old command in the Jewish tradition. It speaks across millennia to us today. Consider the words of the Jewish tradition on health care:

• “Whoever is in pain, lead him to the physician.” (Baba Kamma 46B)

• “It is obligatory from the Torah for the physician to heal the sick and this is included in the explanation of the phrase and you shall restore it to him, meaning to heal the body.” (Moses Maimonides)

• “God created food and water; we must use them in staving off hunger and thirst. God created drugs and compounds and gave us the intelligence necessary to discover their medicinal properties; we must use them in warding off illness and disease.” (Moses Maimonides)

• “No disciple of the wise may live in a city that is not provided with the following 10 officials and institutions: [the first two being] a physician and a surgeon, [a bath-house, a lavatory, a source of water supply such as a stream or a spring, a synagogue, a school teacher, a scribe, a treasurer of charity funds for the poor, a court that has authority to punish with stripes and imprisonment].” (Moses Maimonides)

• “Our Rabbis taught: the non-Jewish poor are to be sustained along with the Jewish poor, the non-Jewish sick are to be visited along with the Jewish sick … for the sake of the ways of peace.” (Gittin 61a).

Indeed, the very word “shalom” comes from the root “l’shalem” — to make whole, to heal. People of faith have always understood our responsibilities to include the obligation to bring health to all, and healing to the sick and infirm. With optimism and determination, we are on the cusp of fundamentally changing the way that Americans ensure health care to all.

To those who would say that religion has no place in the health-care reform debate — that this has become too much a partisan political issue — organizations representing a broad consensus in the mainstream religious communities insist that this is a quintessentially religious issue. The health-care crisis touches nearly every citizen, every community, every church, mosque, temple, and synagogue; every member of the clergy and every congregant. The failure to provide universal health-care coverage challenges the simplest and clearest biblical command expressed by Ezekiel, that “[e]very living thing shall be healed.” It is these values and these concerns that bring the religious community here to say: America deserves better than the reality.

What is the reality?

“We live in a country with a pitifully inadequate health-insurance system that causes horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone.... The time has long since passed when our leaders should have done what every other advanced country has somehow managed to do: provide all its citizens with essential health care.”

With these words, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of our Union for Reform Judaism, called on all of our synagogues to join the struggle to pass universal, affordable, accessible, and portable health-care reform.

The moral test of health-care reform is whether it provides accessible, affordable, quality health insurance for all, including our country’s low-income seniors, children, the disabled, and immigrants. These are the people most at risk of falling through the cracks, and these are the people who rely on us to ensure that they can find decent health care when they need it. Indeed all Americans, wealthy and poor, children, the elderly, and, yes, women, deserve care that meets all their needs — including reproductive health needs — and keeps them healthy throughout their lives.

Yes, America deserves better than the reality.

For the 10 million uninsured children, we say: America deserves better! For the millions of the disabled whose health care is threatened, we say: America deserves better! For the more than 80 million who at some point this year will lose health insurance, we say: America deserves better! For those millions of hard-working Americans who have lost jobs and with them their health benefits, we say: America deserves better! For all of those tens of millions of Americans who fear that they may lose their access to comprehensive coverage, and whose life savings are threatened by catastrophic illness, we say: America deserves better! For the soul of our nation, we say: America deserves better.

Our traditions demand better. Our nation seeks better. God’s children deserve better. This Congress can do better. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call of the fierce urgency of now should animate the decisions each senator will make in ensuring universal health coverage. We pray and advocate that they will do better — for all Americans and for our nation’s future.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. This piece is adapted from remarks he delivered at a press conference on Monday at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Other speakers were Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.); Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich); James Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist Church; and Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director, NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. Other religious leaders stood behind the speakers, representing various denominations supportive of health-care reform.
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Aryeh Lewis posted 18 Dec 2009 at 05:27 AM

I agree with the Rabbi here ... BUT   Obamacare is NOT about health care reform ... it is about health care deprivation/deformation ... it will worsen health care for everyone and still not cover everyone ... it will bankrupt our economy, contrary to what the President in his ideologically driven zeal says… stop repeating the deception ... do not play on true compassion and Jewish liberal standards to lead us into this trap!

HARRY posted 20 Dec 2009 at 09:02 PM

Last week, Rabbi Waskow misused the Jewish religion to promote his politics re climate change.  This week, it is Rabbi Saperstein’s turn to misuse the Jewish religion to promote his politics re health care. 
I have no problem with clergymen expressing their political beliefs.  I do have a big problem with clergymen expressing their political beliefs as religion based.  Then, why is there so much disagreement among the clergy regarding politics?  We have seen the clergy promote evil deeds as well as good deeds. 
The clergy should stick to their business.  Teach the laity religion and religious behavior.  Let us interpret how our religion should affect our politics.

KRG posted 22 Dec 2009 at 10:30 PM

You’re still free to interpret how religion should affect your politics - however you want. But so are they! Do with it what you will.

Cynthia Lowenkamp posted 25 Dec 2009 at 06:47 PM

It is a shame for the Rabbi to conclude that what is needed is universal healthcare according to Baba Kamma.  What specifically is wrong with the American healtcare system?  Where is the list of legitimate problems?  When will we study them, and if needed, then resolve them?
I have written to my legislators and the only response I have gotten is “Thank you for your response.”  The Halachah tell us that the most important factors in life are the individual and the community.  In my opinion, neither the current administration nor the Rabbi have fully performed their due diligence in this respect.  The Rabbi’s statements are uninformed at best and political, it seems, which is the worst.  Further, it appears that the current administration is unable to truly care about much of anything and that its actions are also uninformed and political only, both of which are the worst,  especially when governing.  But the real question is what can be done about any necessary improvements to our healthcare system that may be needed in an affordable way, and in a way in which the government does not take over the system?

Moshe posted 26 Dec 2009 at 10:17 PM

Rabbi Saperstein fails to differentiate between access to healthcare and affordable healthcare insurance.  It is true that everyone in the US (including non citizens) have access to basic healthcare - granted it is inefficient and costly - but no one is refused service at hospitals.  Healthcare insurance is not really insurance - which is defined as protection against catastrophic events.  It is basically a non-taxed benefit that large corporations offer to their employees - which is neither fair to the general public nor fair to tax payers.  Perhaps the US should reform the concept of government funding of healthcare and return ownership of healthcare to the doctors and individuals and out of the hands of the government.

Naomi Benzil posted 03 Jan 2010 at 02:23 AM

I am overwhelmed by the comments of those who do not care about the other human beings in their community.  In our interdependent society, no person is an island unto themeselves.  Your self interest has overcome your sense of obligation to the community of people on earth.  I am aware that we can’t solve every problem in health care all at once. It is very difficult to change an inequitable process that has developed for many years.  We must start to right the wrongs of the past by extending health care to all.  The present legislation extends health care to those who have pre-exsting conditions, those who can’t afford to purchase insurance and those unable to care for themselves.  Insurance is shared risk and we need everyone in the ‘pool’ of the insured to make it affordable to all.

Unfortunately this legislation is not driven by the citizens but a compromise of competing self-interests and that many items will not be in force for a few years.  I am confident that future adjustments will provide a more equitable system.

For those who think morals has nothing to do with politics, need to realize that laws are based on our moral values.  Laws about murder didn’t develop from politics.

Those who care about the future health of society need to let their legislators know that it is immoral to deny health care to a third of our population.

 

Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?

 

 

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A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.

 

 

Divided we fall — united we may stand

As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.

 

 
 
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