Health Care Access: Let Tzedek Reign

"Word of the Lord" Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash
"Word of the Lord" Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash

With the election fast approaching, we are aware of the primary aspect of the discussion around health care and access to affordable and quality care. One of the workshops that is being requested from our program recently has been the discussion on a Jewish approach to this issue, as it is a hot topic on so many levels, especially in light not only of the election but of the pandemic. With the election and the pandemic and the case before the Supreme Court, we can ask what would be a Jewish values approach to this issue? With Boomers aging and now rushing to Medicare and with longevity a reality and thus having increased demands on Medicaid, can we search the tradition for guidance?

The study guide we prepared on Health Care (go to top menu bar and click on Resources to scroll down to Heal Care Disucssion Guide) focuses on four scholars, from across the denominational field who have written on this issue in the last generation. All seem to come down, in some fashion, on the traditonal value of tzdek, or justice. Dr Aaron Mackler, writing in the 1990’s notes that society in general has an obligation “to enable each individual to enjoy a fulllife by restoring lacks and providing basic needs requisite to fit wuthin a species-typical functioning”. He analyzes traditional sources and concludes tzedek demands  that “Access to all health care needed by any individual must be assured”.

Rabbi Elliott Dorf, a leading scholar based in the Conservative movement has written a lot on this issue. In his classic “In Matters of Life and Death” he notes that health care is not only a family responsibility but a communal one as well. He discusses a variety of options, stating that there may not be one one general solution, but reminds us that from a Jewish point of view allowing people to have no health insurance is “an intolerable deriliction of society’s moral duty…While the specific form of health care system may vary, Jewish ethics defintely demands that American Jews work to ensure that the United States, as a society, provides health care to everyone in some way” Again we see the foundation of Dorff’s view as the value of tzedek.

Jeff Levin, PhD, MPH, from Baylor University, likewise has written on the justice model, citing in a 2013 piece a variety of basic Jewish values that underscore his approach. He sees tzedek as a call to restore that which people “lack”. Society has that obligation. He also cites such values as pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and Levitcus 19, that we cannot stand by as people suffer and lack basic needs that could threaten life. He notes that if people’s essential health care needs are not being met that God, Levin says, “requires of us, voluntarily at least, a redistributive justice bolder than any secular government would dare to legislate”

This idea of redistributive justice seems to be a theme of another contemporary scholar, Professor Laurie Zoloth of Chicago. She maintains that an “ethics of encounter” points us in a relational way to making sure that there is a  basic decent minimum of access to health care for all. She cites an analyses of the Book of Ruth and the belief that justice means that we all walk together and are thus responsible for each other. For her “community is prior to autonomy” and in that we are reminded of the Talmudic phrase that “All Israel is responsible one for the other”

Thus, one can make the case that a Jewish approach to health care access find its foundation on the classic value of tzedek and that a just system allows for everyone to have access to basic health care so that what they “lack” in health can be compensated. The idea that we are part of something greater than our autonomous self, places us in relationship to all others. If the “other” lacks basic health acre, then we do as well and thus, in a system that is based on justice, all must have equal access.


Rabbi Richard F Address

1 Comment

  1. Very apt topic especially now: The American cultural / political dilemma is that ultimately autonomy and $ ‘trump’ community & mutual responsibility, IMHO. Fred Raskind, Rabbi

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