There have been a number of interesting reactions to my call of orthodox Jewish groups to support universal health care. Two themes have emerged: 1. Most people are covered by insurance they pay for, other enjoy Medicare or Medicaid coverage and those who are not in these categories do not deserve coverage. The logic goes something like this. If one cannot afford coverage it is because they have made bad life choices and therefore should not be bailed out by the Government. 2. Religious groups need not enter this discussion, as it is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue.
As for #1, I put this under the category of cruel and misinformed. There are millions of people (growing in this economic recession) without health insurance simply because they cannot afford it and are still not covered by any Government plan.
I wish, however to focus on reason #2; the claim that the health care debate is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue. Nothing could be further form the truth. Put simply, when human life is at stake and when the less fortunate are at a disadvantage and when there are ways to make it better – it is a religious/moral issue. This is the very definition of a religious/moral issue and our tradition is full of calls to make sure that the most vulnerable are cared for.
One of the highlights of my week is the teaching I do for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School. THE FMAMS is the world leader in adult Jewish education and they have created a powerful model of adult Jewish education across the country.
In preparing for my teaching I came across the phrase “citing God against God”, coined by Emil Fackenheim.
One very good example of this is when Abraham challenge God about His decision to destroy Sdom. After hearing God’s plan, Avraham cries out: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked….shall the judge of the whole earth not do justice?”
Another popular reason given as to why Jews need not come out in favor of universal heath care is based on the complexity of the issue in terms of the ultimate cost of universal care. After all, what will become of research since so much funding is generated based on the current system. “Won’t small business be burdened by crippling costs?”
These are important questions and they should not be ignored, but they should not be the cause for the end of the discussion. After al, the Torah does not record Avraham weighing the “costs” of saving Sdom. He could have hesitated to argue with god, reasoning that saving Sdom for the sake of a few tzaddikim would mean the continued existence of evil in the world and a reprieve for those who did not deserve it…but he did none of that. It is not that the details are unimportant; it is that it is the duty of the religious person to make sure the world keeps their eyes o the ideal.
The willingness to challenge God has become part and parcel of Jewish tradition.
In his book, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, Rabbi Anson Laytner highlights this idea that appears frequently in Chassidic literature.
One of the best-known practitioners of this is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, one of the early Chasidic leaders.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak once summoned a tailor and asked him about an argument he had with God. The tailor said: “I declared to God, ‘You wish me to repent my sins, but I have committed only minor offenses.” I may have kept leftover cloth, or I may have eaten non-kosher food, or not blessed my meal. But You, O God, have committed great sins: You have taken babies from their mothers and mothers from their babies. Let’s call it even; may You forgive me, and I will forgive You.’”
After listening intently, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak rose in anger and said, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to redeem the whole world!”
Perhaps more well known in is the kaddish of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak:
Good morning to You, Lord of the world.
I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, am coming to You in a legal manner concerning Your people of Israel.
What do you want of Israel?
It is always, “Command the children of Israel.”
It is always, “Speak to the children of Israel.”
Merciful Father! How many people are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites!
The Russians, what do they say?
Our emperor is the emperor.
The Germans, what do they say?
Our kingdom is the kingdom.
But I, Levi Yitzchak son of Sarah of Berditchev say:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.
And I, Levi Yitzchak son of Sarah of Berditchev say: I shall not go hence, nor budge from my place until there be a finish
until there be an end of exile—
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.
Judaism has never accepted the position that we could sit back and let events unfold without a struggle to make things better. Any act of chessed that one person does for another is essentially a rebellion against God. After all, God made it one way and we, with out kindness and good will, desire to change the reality. Surely, if we can speak out against God’s plan we can speak out about social injustice.
This is why it is so important for Orthodox Jewish groups to enter the discussions about heath care. Not doing so is “un-Abrahamic” and ignores a tradition of speaking out on moral issues.