Prophecy Is Not Policy

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
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Liberal Jewish activists profess a great regard for the prophetic tradition and its message to the modern world. In these weeks leading up to our traditional day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, our weekly haftarot are peppered with messages of disapproval for a society deaf to God’s word. And it is hard to read those messages — delivered by Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel — and not feel a chill of recognition.

But should we therefore approach all matters of public policy — health care, taxes, crime and punishment, the environment and so on — by asking WWJD (What Would Jeremiah Do)? From reading through the reams of policy statements and speeches issued by the Jewish community’s most reliably liberal organizations, it’s clear that the thundering words of the prophets count for a lot.

When a flock of religious leaders, including several rabbis, called for a major expansion of public health insurance recently, they cited Isaiah 1:17. Other calls for health reform are supported, supposedly, in Ezekiel 34:4. Environmentalists heed the words of Hosea 4:1-3 or Micah 4:1-4. Reducing the jail sentences of drug offenders is evidently the theme of Ezekiel 33:1. And no call for “social justice” is complete without a tip of the hat to Isaiah 58.

Justifying modern positions with a few sound bites from ancient texts is one of the oldest tricks in the book, used liberally by both right and left and by adherents of all faiths. Borrowing a few phrases from the prophets is a surefire way to connect the faithful to an issue they would not otherwise understand, and give to it the poetry lacking in floor speeches on C-Span.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wise. The prophets are a little thin on the details. Isaiah talks of “buying food without money, wine and milk without cost.” Tell that to the grocer.

Prophets were by definition lousy leaders: Nobody listened to them, and their predictions of doom fell on deaf ears. They railed against things like vanity and pride, lust and greed, idol-makers and the uncircumcised. Their calls for fealty to God were straight from the “do this or die” school of scare mongering. And on balance, they were a dreary, anti-social lot. I doubt seriously that Jeremiah or Amos could have gotten elected to city council, let alone Congress.

Good thing, too. The world inhabited by the prophets was one of dark and light, good versus evil. If we ever need a prophet to guide us, it would probably signal that something truly terrible had happened in our own time — a massive plague, a reign of terror imposed by an enemy, the exiling of our people to distant lands.

And so perhaps the prophets are not quite up to the task of informing our health care reform debate. Yes, our health care system is an expensive and messy jumble of state and federal mandates, private insurance rules and practices and a remarkable level of specialization — so we could use all the help we can get. But do we really want a few phrases uttered more than 2,500 years ago to determine the course of reforming our health system?

Those few phrases — and trust me, the lines cited by policy advocates are very few among screeds that run for several pages at a time — don’t really deal with the thorny issue of, say, providing publicly paid health insurance to well-off people who don’t want to pay for private insurance themselves. Amos didn’t deal with drug re-imports from Canada, and Hosea didn’t address the right income cutoff level for public health subsidies. If God had wanted us to have the answer to that one, it would probably be found in Leviticus anyway — and last I checked, social-justice types typically don’t want much to do with Leviticus, because that’s where God gets into what we eat, and with whom we sleep.

God, through his prophets, commands us to care for the sick and the needy. He says choose life. The rest is up to us. If He wanted the prophets to actually implement a health care reform agenda, we would know it by now. After all, God is very specific about so many other things in our life, you’d think He would care to send a message through one of his minions about whether He prefers a public co-op health insurance exchange to a public health insurance option.

It’s fine to argue, as liberal Jewish organizations often do, that Jewish texts place great value on care for the sick. But it’s not as if opponents of taxpayer-funded universal health insurance are agents of evil. Rather, many simply recognize that private medicine is superior to socialized medicine in more than a few important respects.

People around the world now survive heart attacks largely because of the innovations created by America’s health marketplace. New medical procedures, new knowledge, new drugs — all have been made possible by our current health care system. True, health care is still expensive, and not everyone enjoys its benefits equally, but in many respects it’s better in America than anywhere else — and if that’s not a way of honoring the prophetic call, what is?

So let’s leave the cloaks of the prophets in our closets and set aside the dog-eared pages of our biblical concordances. The serious work of policy-making involves difficult choices and competing claims — all morally grounded. The prophets did their work. Now let us do ours.

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as a speech writer and Jewish liaison for President George W. Bush.

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