Thank God for the Wisdom of the Supreme Court



The Supreme Court has spoken. Yes, there is still much to worry about, but for now, the religious community can breathe a sigh of relief.

For weeks, we have been waiting for the Court to decide the fate of Obamacare. We have listened to endless fulminating from the Tea Party and from members of Congress on the right. We have heard too many politicians, sitting on their fat health insurance provided by the taxpayers, declare their willingness to return tens of millions of Americans to the all-but-permanent state of anxiety that they were once in about their ability to get the care they need.

But, thank God, that did not happen.

Pro-health care reform advocates rally in front of the Supreme Court in March during oral arguments over the Affordable Care Act. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

We in the religious community have a special stake in this issue. Historically, health care emerged from the domain of church and synagogue; it was a subset of charity provided by religious institutions and dictated by religious values.

Furthermore, over the last half century we have been profoundly aware of the pain, chaos, and indignity imposed on Americans by our country’s deeply flawed system of providing health insurance.

For many Americans, after their family, the first person they talk to following a diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is a rabbi, minister, or imam. We members of the clergy have helped them deal with the profound panic they feel on such occasions, and with their fear of death, suffering, and disability. And then, in far too many cases, we listened to them tell us that they were terrified that their insurance would be inadequate or that it would be cancelled; and not infrequently they told us that because they recently lost their job, they had no insurance at all.

And far too often, we heard them say that they feared the impoverishment of their families as much as they feared the consequences of their illness. And sometimes they wondered aloud if they would be better off dead than allowing the financial ruin of those they love.

We in the religious community have long known that the faces of the underinsured and the uninsured are our own: the small-business owner who just couldn’t afford to insure either his employees or himself; the divorced mother trying to support her family on part-time work; the recent college grad who hasn’t yet found a job or who is working for minimum wage and without benefits. (Bizarrely, but thankfully, our system provides for the some of the truly poor, while many in the middle class live in fear.)

We know that even as we in the religious world teach, each in our own way, that “God helps those who help themselves,” self-reliance has its limits. There are some things that we cannot expect God to do and that people cannot do on their own–and providing a reasonable level of health insurance is one of those things.

We know that the religious values of the matter are clear. The Abrahamic traditions may not dictate any particular system of insurance but they all see baseline care, in the words of Jean Bethke Elshtain, as “a public good consistent with the dignity of human persons and with what it means to care for one’s neighbor.” And my own Jewish tradition states the community’s responsibility to heal in emphatic terms. Thus Joseph Caro, the compiler of the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, writes: “If the physician withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood” (Yoreh Deah, 336:1).

Now, none of this meant that we in the religious world were always committed to Obamacare. Indeed, initially I favored other approaches to providing health care to Americans. But the fact is that after 60 years of trying, and in the face of ferocious opposition, the President devised and passed a plan that would finally deal with those things that worried the frightened people who came to my office in the Temple. It guaranteed that if you had a diagnosis of leukemia or multiple sclerosis or some other life-threatening or chronic disease, you could be assured of receiving a decent level of care, without being turned away or gouged. And for this I was very thankful.

Yes, many on the right will work hard to disrupt the law and to deny it the financing that it will require. We still have much work to do.

But for now, the law remains in place. We are seeing the end of a pitifully inadequate health insurance system that caused horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone. The American people no longer need to fear that every one of us could lose our health insurance at any time. They have been given hope. And for this I say again: Thank God.

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

5 Responses to “Thank God for the Wisdom of the Supreme Court”

  1. ‘Remorseless encroachment by the state’? ‘Federal leviatin’[sic]? ‘Antithetical’ to the free market concept?
    Please, spare us the same, tired, Libertarian liturgy. Laissez faire didn’t work in the 19th Century, and it doesn’t work now.
    Do you seriously object to the ‘pre-existing’ illnesses clause, for example? Such callousness would be unthinkable…wouldn’t it?

  2. Rabbi Yoffie, it is no coincidence that “over the past half century we have been profoundly aware of the pain, chaos and indiginity imposed on Americans by our country’s deeply flawed system of prodvide health insurance” because this marks the federal government’s entry into the healthcare system. Indeed as the scale government’s participation has relentlessly increased, the healthcare system has progressively worsened. Obamacare now seeks to fix this problem with more of the same.

    Health care is not an inealienable right, it is a basic necessity similar to food, clothing and shelter. These basic necessities are plentiful in our society because they can be bought and sold ever day in the market. Obamacare is the anthithetical to the market forces that provides these other basic necessities.

    One of the many failed premises of Obamacare is the conceit that health insurance is somehow equivalent to healthcare. If 30 million more customers are added to the system without a proportianate increase in providers, the law of supply and demand means that availability will go down and prices will rise. In March, the CBO noted that the costs of the law are expected to be nearly twice as great as originally advertised and the CBO’s estimate was by their own admission, conservative. In no small measure, the Supreme Court let Obamacare stand by recasting the insurance mandate as a tax. Indeed, the legislation would never have passed had its proponents been straightfoward with the American public; reflected in the consistent majority opposition to Obamacare. Yet even after the SCOTUS ruling, the administration continues deny that Obamacare raises taxes. Last I checked, lying is a sin which made the Almighty’s top ten list.

    I am puzzled by your contention that “providing a reasonable level of health insurance is one of the things that people can not do on their own”. The vast majority of Americans indirectly provide health insurance through their employer. This “pitifully inadequete health insurance system” is a recent development and a direct consequence of federal tax law. This recalls Justice Brandies’ warning that “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

    I also fail to understand what is moral about relieving the citizens of the wealthiest society in history of the responsibility for provisioning of their own healthcare? What other core responsibilities of adulthood should the citizenry be relieved of? And if it provides your healthcare, doesn’t the government also have an implicit ethical obligation to regulate your behavior in order to improve outcomes and reduce costs? Does the government reserve the right to withhold care if you don’t live a healthy lifestyle as per its directives? If this sounds far-fetched, please note that currently in the UK, smokers are being denied treatment for lung cancer and obese patients are denied joint replacement until they lose weight. As the former NHS Secretary Patricia Hewitt has stated, there is nothing wrong with denying treatment for ‘lifestyle choices’.

    More troubling is how the Reform Jewish leadership willingly concedes its traditional responsibility to the remorseless encroachment by the state. Implicit in the petition is that the religious community is no longer willing to fulfill its long-standing obligations to the needy. But this is a Faustian bargain, for as the state enlarges it squeezes out the church, synagogue and other voluntary organizations of civil society; the very ‘associations’ that Toqueville emphasized as a bulwark for the freedoms guarenteed by the American system. This system yields moral fruit as citizens voluntarily provide for those in need. As we see in Europe, an unintended irony of the the state providing everything is a selfish citizenry; no longer concerned about their children or country. Instead they are selfishly obsessed with the state continuing to provide their unsustainable benefits. As the Catholic church has belatedly discovered, religious organizations quickly find that their principles of right and wrong are superceded by the moral decrees of the government. It is no coincidence that the steady delcine in participation and confidence in our nations’ major religions coincides with the voluntary transfer of their traditional obligations to the federal leviathin.

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