The United States Supreme Court made a groundbreaking decision today, voting to uphold the landmark Affordable Care Act with a 5-4 vote. The court upheld arguably the most controversial part of the law that requires all Americans to purchase health insurance.
Many Jewish organizations have made statements about the Supreme Court’s vote. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly wrote an op-ed piece back in March when the Supreme Court’s hearings on such a plan began, suggesting that universal health care is a Jewish moral imperative.
The fact is that we have no idea how universal health care will impact our country and we won’t know until it takes full effect in 2014. Many who are already blessed to have health insurance are concerned about the change in coverage, care, and quality of service, as well as the added expenses. The cost of health care very well may go up. Still, from a Jewish perspective I cannot deny the importance of such a Supreme Court vote.
Judaism teaches that Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, is the most important mitzvah. In fact, it is so important that it takes precedent over other mitzvot. How important is health care, looking after the physical well-being of another, and saving a life? In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. He is compared to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the Yeshiva L’Maalah, from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently the he, as an incredible rabbi and scholar, does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life.
For saving a life, bringing the ill back to a refuah shlemah, a full recovery, is the most important thing one can do in Judaism, more so than learning Torah or teaching Torah, because when one saves a life, one gives another an opportunity to live Torah! In fact, the Tzitz Eliezer, a halakhic work, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg, basing his halakhic ruling on the Shulkhan Arukh, concludes that care of the sick is our first priority. We must prioritize using communal funds for the care of the sick over other obligations, including the construction of a synagogue. Taking care of the sick comes before having a house of worship, a place to daven, a community gathering space.
We do not know how society will evolve as a result of universal health care being a reality in America. I do know – and strongly believe – that it is our halakhic obligation to take care of one another, to raise up the downtrodden, and to help heal the sick. Every day, we recite the words of the Amidah prayer, the central part of fixed Jewish liturgy. Included in the Amidah is this blessing:
Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed. Help us and save us, for You are our glory. Grant perfect healing for all our afflictions. For You are the faithful and merciful God of healing. Praised are You Adonai, Healer of His people Israel.
Health care for all is a pretty good start to making sure that what we pray for daily in the Amidah becomes reality.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky