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Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism and Universal Health Care
November 2002

The Reform Movement’s commitment to universal, high quality health care has been a cornerstone of the Movement’s social action work for decades.  Today, the more than 40 million Americans without health insurance and the millions more with inadequate coverage compel us to act to address this problem.  The Union of American Hebrew Congregations 1975 resolution calling for reform of the health care system has been the foundation of our efforts to improve the American health care system.

This resolution demands that in the United States there should be made available national comprehensive prepaid single-benefit standard insurance with no deductible to cover prevention, treatment and rehabilitation in all fields of health care.  Standards of health care should be established and be continually reviewed by a board on which consumers are represented.  Both private and governmental efforts should be made to enlarge the supply of health personnel and to make more effective use of all professional and paraprofessional resources.  The rights of persons to choose among doctors should be assured.  Equally, the rights of doctors to practice according to their judgment must also be assured, provided they meet the appropriate standards of competence and responsibility.

Our commitment to health care stems from two central ideas.  The first is Judaism’s teaching that an individual human life is of infinite value and that the preservation of life supersedes almost all other considerations.  We are constantly commanded “not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors.”  The second is the belief that God has endowed us with the understanding and ability to become partners with God in making a better world.  The use of that wisdom to cure illnesses has been a central theme in Jewish thought and history. 

From these themes, we must conclude that when members of a society at large are ill, our responsibility – not only of the medical profession but of all of us – expands to ensure that medical resources are available at an affordable cost to those who need them.  This principle is also embodied in the concept of mipnei tikkun ha-olam – what we are obliged to do in order to repair the world in which we find ourselves.

There are several avenues the Reform Jewish Movement is currently pursuing to act on this mandate of tikkun olam and be a part of the fight for universal health care access.  We have supported the inclusion of prescription drug benefits in Medicare, increased federal funding for state Medicare and Medicaid programs, as well as State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP), the establishment of a patient’s bill of rights and health coverage for low-income legal immigrant children.  Ultimately, we hope to achieve a comprehensive, single-payer national health care insurance, but working for incremental reforms is a solid interim approach.

There are many resources available for Jewish communities seeking to take action on health care.  The website of the Religious Action Center (RAC) (http://www.rac.org//issues/issuehc.html) contains detailed information on the American health care system.  Also on the RAC website is a program bank of successful programs organized by congregations (http://www.rac.org//social/servicehealth.html). The RAC staff is always available to provide information and help local groups plan social action events.
Religious Leaders Press Conference on Health Care
Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
February 28, 1994

Two central ideas underlie the abiding Jewish commitment to provide health care to all of God’s children. The first is Judaism’s teaching that an individual human life is of infinite value and that the preservation of life supersedes almost all other considerations. We are constantly commanded "not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors." The second is the belief that God has endowed us with the understanding and ability to become partners with God in making a better world. The use of that wisdom to cure illnesses has been a central theme in Jewish thought and history.

Three health care obligations flow from these core values:

  • First, physicians have an obligation to heal. The great Jewish medieval commentator Moses Maimonides concluded, "It is obligatory from the torah for the physician to heal the sick and this is included in the explanation of the phrase: ‘and you shall restore it to him.’ meaning to heal the body." So honored a profession was that of physician that during the Middle Ages as many as half of the best known rabbinic authors and scholars were also physicians.
  • Second, patients have an obligation to obtain health care. Our bodies and souls belong to God, and we have to ensure that they are cared for. The verse in Deuteronomy (4:15) "You shall indeed guard your souls," had traditionally been interpreted as commanding us to protect our health. Furthermore, based on the passage in the Talmud, "Whoever is in pain, lead him to the physician," the rabbis concluded that Jews should live in cities where doctors live, in order to have access to health care.
  • Third, providing health care was not just an obligation for the patient and the doctor, but for the society as well. It is for this reason that health care is listed first by Maimonides on his list of the ten most important communal services that had to be offered by a city to its residents. During the long history of the self-governing Jewish community, almost all such communities set up societies to ensure that all their citizens had access to health care. Doctors were required to reduce their rates for poor patients and, where that was not sufficient, communal subsidies were established.

From these themes, we must conclude that when members of a society at large are ill, our responsibility – not only of the medical profession but of all of us – expands to ensure that medical resources are available at an affordable cost to those who need them. This principle is also embodied in the concept of "mipnei tikkun ha-olam" – that we are obliged to do in order to repair the world in which we find ourselves.

The provision of more affordable and more easily accessed health care in America has become a pressing matter for Reform Jews, who operate with a prophetic mandate to "do justly" and to provide for those in need. Our resolutions on "social insurance" on adequate health date back to 1948, and on a single-payer approach to national health care, to 1975. In the current crisis of health care coverage and access, our commitment to health care leads us and our constituencies to reaffirm our health care principles and to work in coalition with other groups seeking similar goals.

Members of the UAHC commend President Clinton for proposing and the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for shaping, the Health Security Act, a strong, national health care reform plan whose stated goal is to extend access to affordable quality health care to every American. The president’s program features many important improvements over the current health care system and shares many of the UAHC goals on this issue.

We continue our support of the Interreligious Health Care Access Campaign and we will work toward legislative ratification of its priorities.

For Jews, the current health care crisis is not only a human tragedy, but an immense moral challenge. There are more than 35 million Americans without health access to basic health care. Yet we, as a country, spend more per capita than any other nation on health care costs. Internationally, the United States is recognized as having the finest medical talent and facilities in the world. And still we rank well below many less developed nations in infant mortality rates. That such disparities exist in the world’s wealthiest country means that the moral soul of our nation is sick. It will be healed only when we ensure that each of God’s children has the opportunity for healing.

The Jewish tradition teaches that an ethical health care system must provide for universality of access without regard to income; cost containment; preventative medicine and quality care. This is our religious mandate. For our tradition teaches us that just before the exodus from Egypt, at a time when the Israelites were most uncertain of their collective future, God spoke to them and said, "Ani Adonai rofecha --- I am the Lord that heals thee." Since that time, Judaism has understood the duty to heal the sick to be a fundamental religious precept, rooted in the preciousness of every human life.

 
Faithful Reform in Health Care ~ P.O. Box 6174 ~ Wilson, NC 27894-6174 ~ 1-888-863-8910