Monday, November 23, 2009

The Health Care Debate: Notes and Sources

I've received some very thoughtful response to my posting about Joe Lieberman and the issue of filibustering the Health Care bill, which I appreciate, no matter what side of the issue they are on. Unfortunately, the tone of a couple of responses was such that I couldn't publish them. The respondents clearly had not read my own posting, which took no position on the bill, or on the public option, but made a strong (and rather conservative) case that nothing should distract from Iran right now. My feeling is that whatever bill is passed on health care can be tinkered with and fixed over the coming years, but that an Iranian nuclear weapon will be irreversible.

It is becoming painfully clear that, thanks to the polarizing effect of advocacy journalism, all of politics has now become what only Middle Eastern politics used to be: people talking past each other and not really listening. Health care has become a domestic version of the Arab-Israeli conflict; so has just about everything else. When Walter Cronkite died this year, it symbolized the end of the era when everyone got their news from a common source (granted, not a totally unbiased one, but at least not what Fox and MSNBC have become). And while the Internet carries the potential to open people up to other views, more often it becomes an echo chamber where one's own opinions are reinforced. Sad, but, unlike an Iranian bomb (and like Health Care), not irreversible.

One response to my Lieberman posting contained this request:

I would like to hear more from Rabbi Hammerman on how the current political events are related to the Jewish law, traditions and culture. For example, I heard from Dennis Prager that Talmud advises against acceptance of free medical services and I heard also that according to Talmud a doctor cannot refuse to provide medical services to the person who cannot pay.

Your wish is my command!

Click here for Dr Rambam's prescription for health care, which I provided a couple of months ago in advance of a discussion at services. As a physician and rabbi, Maimonides understood that the key to a sound mind was to maintain a sound body.

In his Mishna Torah, Maimonides listed the top ten services that must be provided by any community. It is noteworthy that #1 on his list is health care. What was true 9 centuries ago is true today.23) It is not permitted for a learned sage to live in a town which does not have the following ten things: a doctor, a blood-letter, a wash-house, a toilet, naturally occurring water such as a river or spring, a synagogue, a midwife, a scribe, a warden of charity and a Court of Law which imprisons people.

Rabbi Gail Labovitz explores Jewish sources in this posting. Much of the Jewish view stems from Exodus 21:19, which discusses a case in which one person has injured another in an altercation. The Torah rules that the assailant must see to it that the victim receives necessary medical attention: וְרַפֹּא יְרַפּ אֵ , "He shall certainly heal him.” See Labovitz's commentary for more details on how the Talmud interprets that verse.

Jewish law clearly places health care as a prime communal obligation. Whether "communal" implies the government is a matter for conjecture - and that is where the two sides of this debate divide.

In the interest of being "fair and balanced," here is what conservative commentator David Klinghoffer had to say about Health Care and Jewish sources. I couldn't find anything as articulate on this subject from Dennis Prager, though I'm sure he has addressed it.

I'm impressed by how this blogger handled the matter, providing a number of sources. I hope you will take the time to read them. So here are the sources... now you decide!

Jewish Law and Health Care

Many Jewish groups have been speaking out about the current debate surrounding health care reform, with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism even setting up a separate web site, Jews for Health Care Reform. Usually I believe that Judaism never comes down on one side of a public policy debate, rather it demands certain behaviors and the upholding of values, but whether these necessitate a specific political platform is often unclear. The demands that Jewish law places on a Jewish community in relation to its members might not translate into a call for civil legislation. For example, Judaism definitely holds charity and help for the poor to be a supreme value and goal, but how does this necessarily translate into politics and government. Someone who supports a minimalist version of government help to the needy may claim that from a macro standpoint they think that this is the best way to help the poor. A recent example of how a movement might be able to agree on the long-term goals, but disagrees on how to get there is the discussion within the Conservative movement about living wage legislation. There have been a number of interesting posts recently which have argued that Jewish law and ethics may actually require that one support universal health care. Whether support for universal health care necessarily equals support for the current health care reform is another question. Here are some of them:

1. Elliot Dorff,
Why We Must Support Universal Health Care

2. Shmuly Yanklowitz,
The Health-Care Battle: A Jewish Issue? (warning: the HTML is messed up on this page)
3. Brad Hirschfield,
The Jewish Source for Universal Health Care

There are two scholarly articles on this question which look very interesting. I haven’t read them, so I can’t comment on them.

1. Aaron L. Mackler,
Judaism, Justice, and Access to Health Care, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal – Volume 1, Number 2, June 1991, pp. 143-1612.
Noam Zohar,
A Jewish Perspective on Access to Healthcare, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (1998), 7, 260-265.

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