Although it now bears the signature of President Barack Obama, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act remains a source of consternation across party lines. For those still engaged in partisan politics in the ongoing health-care debate, there may be something to be gleaned from Jewish Scripture. That, as it happens, was the tenor of a recent panel discussion at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where some speakers suggested that a moralistic Jewish examination of health care and society might shed some light on how to approach such contentious components of the act as the redistribution of wealth from the healthy to the sick.

“While the bill was being discussed and debated in Congress and in the country in general, the focus [was] on the actual details of the legislation,” said Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, a bioethicist at the seminary and moderator of the panel, in an interview. Framing the debate in a Jewish manner, said Sharzer, “puts the whole issue in a much broader context of our responsibilities to both ourselves as individuals and to society as a whole.”

From a Jewish perspective, the ethical implications of mandatory health insurance are paramount. The Biblical contention that human beings are in some way symbiotic with the divine means that an injured human life ultimately diminishes God. It therefore is incumbent on society to take care of those who are too poor to afford health care. “From every Jewish source,” said David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the seminary, “there is no doubt that Judaism has been in favor of the redistribution of wealth toward what it considers to be justice, which in Jewish systems includes the saving of lives.”

The title of the April 12 program was “Health Care Reform: Where Are We? Where Are We Going? Does Judaism Have Guidance to Offer?” The panel brought together experts from many professions and religious affiliations, including Dahlia Remler, a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and George McGurn, president and CEO of the American Hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia. The program was cosponsored by the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and the Center for Pastoral Education, both at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The discussion drew a packed house, mostly of older adults. Despite the ubiquity of the health-care issue, the panel was one of the first to broach the subject in a Jewish context since the signing of the bill into law in late March.

In the American Jewish Committee’s 2010 survey on American Jewish opinion, released in early April, approval of the Obama Administration’s handling of heath care was split: 48 percent of respondents objected, and 50 percent were in support. Yet a nationwide Gallup poll conducted the day after the health-care bill was passed showed 79 percent of Democrats—the party with which the majority of American Jews are affiliated—calling the bill a “good thing.”

In statements released in late March, national Jewish organizations, with the exception of the Republican Jewish Coalition, came out in favor of the bill. (The Jewish Federations of North America, which championed parts of the bill, did not issue a response.) “Jewish tradition mandates that society provide for its citizens’ basic needs, including health care,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in a March 22 statement. “Reform is a medical, economic and above all, a moral imperative.”

The panel skirted the question of how the bill will actually affect Jewish life. Nineteen percent of Jewish adults are over 65, making American Jews disproportionately older than the rest of the country’s population, according to the 2002 National Jewish Population Survey. Long-term federal health-care funding will, for example, help subsidize the creation of nursing homes and hospitals supported by the Jewish Federations of North America.

Rabbi Sharzer stressed that framing health care through a Jewish lens serves an existential purpose. It allows people to sidestep the polarizing points of conflict and grapple with society’s moral boundaries. “Bringing in thoughts on the Jewish tradition furthers the discussion, the conversation, the debate,” he said. “It just adds another dimension.”

The Torah can be invoked as a spiritual map to the health-care debate, according to seminary dean Daniel Nevins. Scripture emphasizes the need to preserve and protect individual health so the strain on the welfare system won’t be so great. “We should think about the ways in which health care is about our spiritual life,” Nevins said. “How we seek healing for ourselves should also be supportive of our own sense of the value of life.”

Although Judaism ultimately comes out in favor of universal health care, there is “an incommensurability between the discussion of economists and policy experts and the discussion of those who try to represent the moral sources of Jewish tradition,” said Alan Mittleman, professor of modern Jewish thought and director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute. Mittleman also suggested that Jews have a unique perspective on the notion of communal care and a higher sense of responsibility to society at large. This places them at distinct odds with those who consider the new act’s enforcement of buying health insurance an infringement of civil liberty.

“It’s very difficult for Jews to appreciate the political culture that says America is primarily about liberty,” Mittleman said. “It’s a clash between the values of liberty and egalitarianism and liberty and solidarity. That fear we’re becoming a less free nation, hyperbolic as it is, has a genuine value behind it and it has an authentic American tradition behind it that Jews are constitutionally challenged to appreciate.”

Articles by Josh Tapper


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