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The Jewish Source for Universal Health Care

Rabbi Grossman has the right idea when she states, “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.” That said she goes on to argue why Judaism would support a form of universal health care. While I am less sure than she is as to whether “Judaism” would back the Democratic party’s universal health care proclivities, I am pretty certain that such is the case with the vast majority of Clal Yisrael (the Jewish people) today. Simon Greer in <a href="a great post on jspot makes a very compelling argument for why, as a Jewish community, we are (and should be) concerned with the state of health care in America. Greer tells us:


According to the Shulchan Arukh, we should prioritize using communal funds for the care of the sick over other obligations, including the construction of a synagogue. (Yoreh De’ah 249:16) One contemporary legal authority, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (b. 1917) quotes an earlier medical authority, Rabbi Rafael Mordechai Malchi, in commenting:
‘It has been enacted that in every place in which Jews live, the community sets aside a fund for care of the sick. When poor people are ill and who cannot afford medical expenses, the community sends them a doctor to visit them, and the medicine is paid for by the communal fund. (Tzitz Eliezer 5:4)’…..
Based on my experience at Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), American Jews are particularly concerned about health care issues, including the recent dramatic increases in the uninsured (up by 7 million since 2000). In May 2007, 87 percent of the almost 9,000 respondents to’s survey of domestic priorities choose health care, tops, in a field of 10. In February, when JFSJ brought together 300 leaders from the field of synagogue organizing, health care was the issue of greatest interest to congregants.
What is the genesis of this interest among Jews in health care? Are we taking seriously the obligations called for in the Shulchan Arukh? Or perhaps something more basic: the biblical assertion that all human beings are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God?
Jewish law and tradition may play a role. But so do more mundane factors. Jews, like other Americans, are growing increasingly insecure about their own insurance. Some live without coverage, and their prayers for good health have an added sense of urgency. Even those Jews who do not worry about losing their coverage are concerned about rising costs. Jews who fall ill are subjected to an industry that too often prioritizes profits over its clients, denying claims or delaying payments.

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Al Eastman

posted November 21, 2007 at 1:16 pm

I am personally taken aback by the recent posts of Rabbis Stern and Grossman which seem to me to imply there is some sort of monolithic “Jewish Position” on many of todays controversial issues. Nether of these two fine people speak for anyone but themselves. They gave us their interpretations of our traditions in their blogs.
The rabbis are free to suggest that imperatives to Jewish people should be applied to all people by the Jewish Community (that is how I read it). While their positions are noble and humane I would posit that it our role to lead by example. In other words we should follow “…the Shulchan Arukh… prioritize using communal funds for the care of the sick over other obligations…including the construction of a synagogue.” for example.
Which sick? Aye, there’s the rub. I do not pretend to know that answer. Nor am I willing to suggest that we should not construct our houses of worship in order to be the SOLE funding source for community health care facilities. There should be, I think, a certain level of “Community Responsibility” among ALL people in a community, not just we Jews. I would be interested to read subsequent blogs in here of the successes of their efforts to unite the clergy in their communities to implement the ideas they have espoused in their blogs.

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Doug Friedman

posted November 21, 2007 at 5:11 pm

This is more use of Judaism and Jewish traditions to justify left-wing politics that are not really based on Judaism. Even to the extent something is a community responsibility, that does not mean it is a government responsibility. Government meddling and trial lawyers are what have made health care so expensive. It seems unlikely that more government meddling will improve things.

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Maurice Sonnenwirth

posted November 23, 2007 at 12:19 pm

None of these discussions on health care, either in the secular view or Jewish position, ever want to delve into whether government-run health care will be BETTER for the “community” at large. Yes, it might cover the uninsured, and that would be a good thing, but at what cost?
Are the long waits for basic diagnostic tests and appointments in countries such as England and Canada ethical from a Jewish perspective? Is rationing (and yes, there is an argument that what we have now is rationing by another name..) ethical? Do we decide to cut down the cost of care to the elderly who disproportionately consume more of our health care dollars by limiting such things as dialysis to the elderly? Do we just let them die and what is the Jewish perspective on that?
Also, one can argue that government programs might turn out to be MORE expensive than the current system, not less. So everyone can be covered, and everyone can have (except the rich, who will just travel out of the country for medical care, just as Canadians now do in coming to the US for care) equally diminished care…these discussions never seem to take in the aspect of basic economics. Ethics are important, but not in a vacuum…and while I support changing the current awful imbroglio we have, we need to think through a bit better exactly how we are going to do this so we don’t get saddled with a much worse system.

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Tobi Ruth Love

posted November 25, 2007 at 1:47 am

The idea of universal health care is very Jewish. “He who saves one life saves an entire universe.” We are commanded to care for the sick, the poor and the widowed. These are not just suggestions. So the question is not “should we have universal health care?” but “what is the best way to have universal health care?” One way would be to make medical students take a class that includes giving their time to taking care of the poor. Another would be to have doctors give one day a month to caring for the poor in order to keep their medical licence.
Same with dentists and nurses. I also think that all eighteen year olds (or graduating students) should spend six months being trained for the armed forces. In case of a war we do not have enough people to fight. What are we going to do? Say, “wait a few months until we train our soldiers”? We should be prepared. And then they would spend the next six months doing something for our country…volunteering in after school programs, helping in the schools or in hospitals, work on farms, I’m sure there is no end of places that need help. After the year they would get help to go to college. At that point they will be ready for a college education and will have a better idea of what they want to do with their life.

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Rabbi Richard Address

posted November 26, 2007 at 10:24 am

Shalom. The issue of a “Jewish” view of health acre will be of increasing importance now that the baby boomers are able to apply for social security and thus, see Medicare access on the horizon. The debate will only increase (see NYTimes lead editorial from 11/25/07)
The Jewisha “approach” cen be seen emerging from the allocation of scarce resources discussion in Tradition. Indeed, in a 1991 article, Dr Aaron L. Mackler, argued for a universal health care system from just this foundation. (“Judaism, Jusitice and Access to Health Care” in Kenneday Institute of Ethics Journal. Vol 1, Number 2. JUne 1991. John Hopkins Univ. Press)A fuller cross denominational discussion of resource allocation is available from the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns…their Bio-ethics study guide series on Allocation of Scarce Resources.( It is also time for all aspects of the institutional Jewish community to commit to programs supporting universal health care, prevention and health/wellness education. It is a matter of “pikuach nefesh” (saving life) and common morality. Social Action committees need to make this a major focus of their concerns as this issue will impact EVERY member of every congregation.

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Scott D

posted November 26, 2007 at 4:33 pm

I posted this over at JSPOT regarding Greer’s piece. I think it relevant.
Mr. Greer does more than “ground the S-CHIP debate in Jewish tradition.”
This piece is a noteworthy on at least five levels:
* offers exposure to a provocative and relevant text (who cites Shulkhan Aruch?!);
* gathers evidence (with hyperlinks) of extensive and recent Jewish community involvement;
* verifies that health care ranks very high on our communal agenda through JFSJ’s experience;
* identifies our communal self-interest by voicing the individual anxiety faced insuring our own families health;
* prods action by both self-interested and universal criteria.
“Grounding [a social justice cause] in Jewish tradition” often means one of several efforts with varying degrees of impact.
TEXT & RELEASE (often Torah, Pirke Avot or Psalms and Proverbs/Ketuvim)
One way to “ground in Jewish tradition” relies on stating a general principle and suggesting a tight correspondence to the cause at hand. “Torah says ‘Justice, Justice Shall thou Pursue.’ And there is no greater justice issue today than… [fill in the blank].” This may help secular activists to appreciate a pleasant and meaningful role for faith communities at rallies and
for press releases and provide secular Jewish activists a “haimish” or homey feel. However, the Text & Release won’t change commitment levels, let alone minds and hearts.
TORAH SAYS (Exodus/Shemot-Dueteronomy/Devarim, )
Another route is to find a specific Biblical injunctions for living in the land of Israel and connect it to the issue at hand. This suggests that Torah is a moral authority or that our values are present in the ancient laws and should continue today. Ex: “Torah says,’Let your slaves or servants rest on Shabbat.’ So, too, should laborers in our day be ensured time off…”
RABBINIC TWO-STEP (often Talmud or other commentaries on problems or paradoxes in the Torah)
When done well, this can be a powerful expression of Jewish/rabbinic logic, a guide to handle troublesome texts and deepen the value of and engagement for our cause. However, in the wrong hands or on the wrong day for a great teacher this method can confuse and obscure.
Sightly made up Ex: “Why did God respond to Korach and his men who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron by swallowing them and their entire families in the ground? Well, let’s start with Rashi, a 12th century commentator, maybe the most important Talmudic commentator. In Tractate Bavli 4 C, he draws our attention to a similar phrase,’swallow,’ regarding Pharoh’s pride. I’ll spend a few minutes explaining these connection and the insight this provides for pursuing social justice as a Jewish community.”
Another way, as used by Mr. Greer, is to use our immigrant and communal experience as a text. I’ll share 2 with potential power in creating a JEWISH voice for health care.
1) Jews as PROVIDERS of health care. “Jewish Doctor,” perhaps more for an earlier generation but still for ours, is almost a single word. What would it look like to have 1,000 Jewish Doctors lobby on behalf of a health care issue.
2) Jews as civic hospital starters. Stories of individual and communal involvement in the last 100 years in Urban America. What are the reasons why Jews, so small in number, started so many hospitals?

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posted November 28, 2007 at 8:30 pm

The Jewish people who have put politics over that which is halachically correct certainly have twisted their religion! Doug Friedman and Maurice Sonnenwirth obviously know nothing about the present status of government run health insurance, which varies tremendously from state to state. We need not compromise our health options, remove services, cause excessive waiting times, or detract from health assistance in any way in order to have government run health insurance. This should not be a “left-wing” philosophy, and it is, indeed, a Jewish perpective! We absolutely need universal health care for all our citizens, and if it is the Democrats that are willing to provide it, then they should have our vote. The privatization of such will simply cause a select few to grow rich at the expense of others, as has been the case in so many areas. Look at the Medicare program, which has been government run for so many years, operating at a mere 2% over, and see what a good job the government can do! Some things are best left to the government, and health care insurance is clearly one of them.

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