I care very passionately about the issue of healthcare, and yet, in my dismay over the harsh and unforgiving rhetoric of the political conversation, I temporarily held back from making public statements on the issue. I did not want to feed the frenzy of those who have assumed a posture of attack without consideration to the complexity of this pressing issue.
I regret my avoidance. This is a pressing moral issue. From my perspective, Jewish tradition requires that we care for our bodies as the sacred vessel loaned to us by our Creator for the life of our souls. We are bidden to do everything possible to save a life when we have the ability to do make a difference. The sages of my tradition talked about concern for personal and public health, for the welfare of the community, and for the need for government’s compassionate exercise of power. These are all inspiring messages and religious responsibilities that echo throughout Jewish sacred texts.
My conscience has been weighed by the heart-wrenching stories of real people whose lack of adequate healthcare have left them either economically or physically devastated. There are so many dreadful stories of preventable disabilities and long-term, sometimes catastrophic consequences of untreated or under treated illnesses and conditions. How could it be that the richest and most powerful country in the world, a nation that prides itself for providing opportunities for all, could so long avoid making choices that would make health care accessible to all who dwell here? I know these choices are difficult, but we can no longer justify avoiding them.
There are legitimate political reasons why some oppose aspects of the healthcare proposals circulating in Washington. The ideological divide over the proper role and function of government could be debated compassionately. Why can’t we have collaborative conversations in which the consequences of increased government spending for health care could be reasonably fleshed out?
I recently found myself unexpectedly dragged into one of the verbal “fist fights” of this debate. I was invited to offer an invocation at a special event for a Jewish women’s organization. In typical style, my invocation highlighted the work and the causes of this organization through words of prayer. I had learned that a major concern of this organization is healthcare. Therefore, my invocation prayer expressed appreciation that proposed the healthcare legislation had just made it to the senate floor, celebrating the opportunity for a full hearing of the issues. The audience broke into loud applause. I continued, beseeching our Creator to guide our lawmakers in their deliberations, that they may find a way to provide healthcare for all who need it. Again, I was interrupted by applause. The camaraderie was uplifting.
My feelings of satisfaction were short-lived. Just two days later a man appeared unannounced at the door of my synagogue demanding to see me. He told me his wife was involved in the organization that sponsored the event at which I spoke and he wanted me to know that I had deeply offended her. He said, “You had no business bringing politics into a religious event.” I apologized for causing any hurt to his wife, and then offered, “I do believe that healthcare is a religious issue.” He said that I had ruined the event for his wife by politicizing it. He hastened to tell me his rabbi’s name – perhaps suggesting that I was not worthy of the title. I let it pass, and said, “You know, even the rabbis of the Talmud were concerned with healthcare.” Well, that was like dust in the wind. The man once again accused me of being inappropriate. He angrily said, “We have healthcare for everyone in this country. You just have to pay for it!!” So I stepped back from aruguing, told him once again, that I was deeply sorry that his wife was offended and I hoped my words of apology would be conveyed.
The synagogue member whose meeting with me had been interrupted by this confrontation observed, “Wow, there were so many things wrong with what just happened!” Yes, there were. But the most distressing was how much it reflected the culture of our day – in which the tenor of conversation over such a fundamental human right as healthcare has become a knee-jerk, angry, confrontation. What happened to sacrificing some of our personal comfort for the common good? What happened to compassion, humility, and justice?
I feel sad for those who are so blinded by their own fears that they project them angrily onto those who are trying to do some good in this world. I feel sad for our nation that we are stuck in this narrow place. I pray that our leaders may be guided by conscience and wisdom and that Americans can once again come to respect the democratic process by which these difficult decisions are made. And I pray that we may find the courage to stand up to those who wish to silence the debate, to thoughtfully and compassionately push forward for a common good.