On Health Care, Our Fundamental Principles

By Elissa D. Barrett

Published September 23, 2009.
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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.


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