I consider myself a fairly educated person when it comes to medical issues. True, I am not a doctor, although I often make recommendations to my family and friends as if I had completed multiple residencies. But between personal experience and having been married to a doctor for over 30 years, I definitely have a leg up when it comes to diagnosing anything that ends with “itis,” my favorites being arthritis, bronchitis, colitis and gastritis.
Health care coverage, which should be related to our medical concerns, has become a social, political and economic issue that confounds and frustrates most of us. As Jews, we can offer a unique perspective by examining the issues through a Jewish lens – using Jewish ethics as our framework and Jewish texts as our primary source.
Jewish diagnosis of a medical issue begins with a starting point: we focus on the duties and responsibilities we owe to ourselves and others, rather than what we might claim as rights for ourselves – at the expense of others.
The Jewish question is not “What health care am I entitled to?” but rather “What are the responsibilities I have to myself, my family and my community to ensure optimum health?” And “What is our community’s responsibility to take care of those who need health care?”
There are many Jewish texts that can help us answer these questions. The Torah makes it clear that all human beings are precious and created in God’s image. It commands us to take action to protect the lives of others. Leviticus 19:16 teaches: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This obligation to save a life (pikuah nefesh in Hebrew) is so sacred that almost all other Jewish mitzvot are suspended in order to fulfill it, including observing the Sabbath. Perhaps this is the real reason why Jews have always been drawn to the practice of medicine – because the physician is not simply seen as acting on behalf of his purse or patient, but as acting in the service of God.
The duty to care for our bodies is found in Deuteronomy, in which God instructs us to “take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” Because our bodies are viewed as vessels of the soul, we must keep them healthy. Advice on how to be healthy comes from the great 12th-century doctor and rabbi, Moses Maimonides, and includes such things as eating properly, getting sufficient rest and exercise, breathing clean air, moderating our emotions and properly eliminating. Amazingly, this is not so different from what doctors advise us to do today!
But in order to maintain good health, Jewish law prescribes that we are entitled to have access to a doctor when we need one. Over 800 years ago, Maimonides wrote: “One who is ill not only has the right but the duty to seek medical aid” and listed health care as the first of the 10 most important communal services a city should provide. What we glean from our tradition is that not only are we responsible for our own health, but that when we need a doctor, the community must provide one.
Regarding the Jewish obligation to those in our community who need care, the Torah commands us “to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan and the poor,” all of whom were deemed to be the most vulnerable members of society. This obligation stems from the idea that every human being is entitled to the basic resources required to live a dignified, self-sustaining life, and Jewish tradition has interpreted this to include health care. Throughout history, Jewish communities have always created systems to ensure that their citizens have access to health services. Doctors were even required to reduce their rates for poor patients, and if the cost was still too high, subsidies were established to pay for services.
The idea that everyone is entitled to medical care is stated plainly in the Talmud: “Whoever is in pain, lead them to a physician.” It was a revolutionary and sound idea 2,000 years ago, and it is a value we should protect and provide today.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide.