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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.

 

Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

Holy water

Two weeks ago I visited a place in Israel that I had never seen before.

Shafdan, as the place is called, is a high-tech water reclamation plant just a few kilometers outside of Rishon Letzion. It looked a little like Area 51 in Nevada and it smelled a bit like the New Jersey Meadowlands. But what is happening there is amazing.

In the simplest of terms, Shafdan takes more than 90 percent of waste water — that’s water from kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, drains, and toilets — from a large region in northwestern Israel. Shafdan repurifies the water, and then it can be reused.

 

 

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Doing it ourselves

In September of 1972, an armed group of guerrilla fighters calling themselves Black September stormed the dormitory of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. After killing two of the eleven athletes in particularly gruesome ways, they demanded the release of more than 250 prisoners held in Israeli prisons.

The world was glued to its television sets while the standoff continued. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, mobilized an elite commando team to go to Germany and rescue their brothers. The German government and the International Olympic Committee denied the Israelis any jurisdiction to free the hostages. The IOC wanted these games to be peaceful. Bloodshed would tarnish the games — the first in Germany since before World War II — and the IOC and German government were committed to peaceful means to end the standoff.

 

 

A resurgence of anti-Semitism in a different world

This year, Passover was met with two terrible reminders that the dangers posed by anti-Semitism continue to haunt us.

First, a white supremacist in Kansas went on a shooting rampage at a Jewish community center and an assisted living facility, killing three people. Then, worshippers leaving synagogue services in Donetsk, Ukraine, were accosted by masked men who handed out pamphlets ordering all Jews to report to a state registry or prepare to be denationalized.

These two shocking outbreaks put a pale over the celebration of Passover. It was reminiscent of Passovers of old, when the Jews would fear Easter-time anti-Jewish violence. And yet there are differences, new aspects to these current events that mark our times as distinct and more blessed than those that came before.

The violence in Kansas was recognized by everyone, from the president of the United States down to the local authorities, as no “mere” triple murder. The seriousness of the hate crime charges that the alleged shooter will face are a symbol of the zero tolerance that our society has for anti-Semitic violence. I know this on a smaller scale. As the local rabbi, I have been called from time to time by local authorities regarding an anti-Semitic incident. Usually graffiti, usually teenage perpetrators acting out their own complex issues of identity. What has connected each unrelated incident was not only the “traditions” of anti-Semitism but also the priority with which the crime was handled by the authority of that jurisdiction. Responsible government and society no longer tolerate what all too often was accepted in the past.

 

 

Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 
 
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