As the parent of two children with congenital heart disease, and as the spouse of a registered nurse, health care is an important family topic. Ensuring that all people have access to affordable health care is also a timeless Jewish value. That’s why I personally want to give the Supreme Court a healthy yasher koach on today’s ruling upholding the Administration’s Affordable Care Act.
Beginning with the Bible itself, Judaism has always advocated for healthy living and for medical intervention when necessary and appropriate. The early rabbinic commentators distinguished between what was visible and what was invisible. What this means is that the Jewish sages viewed illness as something to be cured – optimally -- by God, but if that failed, the responsibility to heal fell to human hands. Later sources, as medical knowledge and ability advanced, extended humanity’s role in the healing process more broadly: “The Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal, and it is even a commandment.” (Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 336:1)
Within Jewish tradition, providing health care is not just an obligation for the patient and the doctor, but for society as well. It is for this reason that Maimonides, a revered Jewish scholar and physician, listed health care first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city had to offer to its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot IV: 23). Almost all self-governing Jewish communities throughout history set up systems to ensure that all their citizens had access to health care. Doctors were required to reduce their rates for poor patients, and when that was not sufficient, communal subsidies were established (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 249:16; Responsa Ramat Rahel of Rabbi Eliezer Waldernberg, sections 24-25).
And as my teacher and friend Rabbi Elliot Dorff has written:
The fact...that more than 40 million Americans have no health insurance is, from a Jewish point of view, an intolerable dereliction of society's moral duty. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Rabbis of our tradition all loudly proclaim that God commands us to take care of the poor, the starving and the sick. Given the current costs of health care, almost all of us fall into that category. On both moral and religious grounds, then, we simply cannot let the present condition continue; we are duty-bound to find a way to afford health care for all American citizens.