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Virtual Talmud

According to an article in this Sunday’s Washington Post, “The debate over how to overhaul the nation’s health-care system is underscoring a dramatic chasm between the two parties, as Democrats battle over which candidate will most quickly expand health insurance to cover all Americans while GOP contenders compete over who can best minimize the role of both government and employers in delivering care.” Reporter Perry Bacon, Jr. writes that of the 47 million people in our nation who have no health insurance, 9 million live in households that make more than $60,000 a year, while 30 million live in families who have annual incomes below $40,000. The article also reported that the cost of insurance is a major barrier, according to data collected in a poll conducted by the Post in conjunction with Harvard University and the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


Is there “a Jewish position” on the health care debate? As Jews we seldom have one position on any issue. Certainly, the idea of health insurance did not even exist at the time of those writing our great codes of Jewish law. However, what they wrote about the obligation to heal can shed light on finding a Jewish position on our obligation to care for others and thereby help inform us on the health care debate.
As Jews, we recognize that all healing ultimately derives from God, as the Torah states, “I am the Lord that heals you!” (Exodus 15:26). However, we also recognize that God vested in humanity the responsibility to help heal each other. Our Talmudic sages learned this from Exodus 21:18-19: “And if two men fight, and one hits the other with a stone or his fist, and [the victim] does not die. . . [the aggressor] shall cause [the victim] to be thoroughly healed (i.e. pay the medical bills),” i.e. healing comes through human intervention.
The great medieval codifier and physician Maimonides goes a step further. He understands Deuteronomy 22:2, “and you shall restore it to him,” (which literally refers to a lost object) as a commandment to do what is possible to restore the health of one’s fellow. Maimonides sees this as a commandment not just to physicians but to every person, according to his or her ability. We should also add into the mix the commandment from Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” which reminds us that we are each commanded to intervene if someone else’s life is in danger.
Rabbinic law does recognize private property, the right to make a profit, and the right generally not to endanger oneself to protect others (though there are a few exceptions). However, rabbinic sources also speak to reasonable limits on profit and moderating market forces with ethical considerations for fairness, the care of the vulnerable, and building a just–and the rabbis believed therefore a peaceful–society.
As I read these sources, a Jewish position on health care seems to emerge: that we have an obligation heal others, to the full extent of our ability, and therefore we are obligated to find a way to make quality health care accessible and affordable for those who currently cannot afford it. Deciding which candidate can do that will be part of what our elections will be all about.

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