On Health Care, Our Fundamental Principles

By Elissa D. Barrett

Published September 23, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For me, a child of the 1980s, Patrick Swayze’s name will always conjure that magical moment in “Dirty Dancing” when be growls “no one puts Baby in a corner” and whisks Jennifer Grey (a nice Jewish girl) onto the stage. Captured then in his youth and grace, it seems all the more shocking that he has left us after a prolonged battle with cancer.

My aunt and grandfather lost their battles with cancer, too. Like Swayze, they did not have to choose between paying the mortgage and paying medical bills. To get or keep health care coverage, they did not have to work in a hazardous job. They did not have to wait through the night in a field to enter a tent filled with doctors who were providing people with the first medical care they had received in years.

In his address to the nation, President Obama labeled the call to reform our health care system a “moral issue.” Quoting the late Senator Ted Kennedy, the president said the road forward depends on “fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country,” not just the details of health care policy.

Fundamental principles of social justice and character are the essence of our spiritual journey on Yom Kippur. For a day, we face our own death. Called to account, we stand as a community and chant the vidui, the confession, in the plural voice: “We have transgressed, we have done violence, we have lied, we have oppressed, we have led others astray, we have strayed from Your good precepts and ordinances, and it has not profited us.” Collectively, we bear responsibility for our neighbor’s vices and well-being. We are woven together in a single cloth and return to life through that bond of common welfare.

We are not God. We do not know who among us will live and who will die. We know only that we bear collective responsibility for building a just and holy community — a kehillah kedoshah — a world as best repaired from its wounds as we can achieve, together.

Jewish tradition teaches us that a kehillah kedoshah cares for the sick. As Jews, we visit and feed those who have fallen ill. The Amidah praises God as one “who supports the ones falling, heals the sick, and releases the imprisoned.” The Talmud teaches: “It was said in the name of Rav: It is forbidden to live in a town that has no doctor.” According to Maimonides, the minimum requirements for a society appropriate to house a Torah sage include medical care.

The Talmud also teaches us that the way in which we ask our community to pay for health care is as much a part of its moral import as the provision of care itself. In Tractate Ta’anit 21b, a bloodletter (the physician of antiquity) cuts a slot in the back of his home, allowing his patients to pay anonymously after they have received treatment. The doctor, unaware of who pays and how much, treats all equally — whatever the patient’s class, age, gender, or race. (In “Dirty Dancing,” Jennifer Grey’s father, a Jewish doctor, provides free emergency medical care to a young female dancer in need.)

Knowing our tradition, how will we address the wound that is our nation’s failure to provide comprehensive, secure medical care for those in need, with pre-existing conditions, and without employment?

There is no magic bullet, no easy answer for what combination of policies will help us start to solve America’s health-care crisis. But we must address it. As it is said in Pirkei Avot: “We are not required to finish the work, nor are we free to desist from it.”

Elissa D. Barrett is executive director of Progressive Jewish Alliance.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.