A little while ago, President Obama had a conference call with 1000 rabbis in the U.S., the vast majority Conservative or Reform. The Rabbinical Council of America was actually invited to participate in the call as well but, for a variety of reasons, turned down the invitation. This post, though, is not about this invitation and the refusal to participate. There were reasons to participate and reasons not to -- I actually would be more interested in the debate over this issue rather than the conclusion, for that could be most interesting and yield various important insights into the community and our understanding of Torah. One issue, for the RCA, that specifically interested me was that differing viewpoints on the subject would not be presented. The president would just present his plan and call upon the rabbis to help him execute it. The RCA felt that this, for different reasons, was problematic. One of these reasons may have been the very need to discuss the issue.
Within the RCA on-line forum for rabbis to discuss important issues, most of a halachic nature, there actually were requests to discuss public health care from a halachic perspective. There are many issues involved from rationing to the possible imposition of certain demands upon a health care practitioner that demand halachic scrutiny. What I, though, have found interesting is that the very issue of public health care itself is not, in itself, seen as a halachic issue. What is society's responsibility to cover the cost of health care for one who personally cannot pay? What is an individual's responsibility to cover, or partially cover, the costs of a service from which he has benefited? The answers are not so simple.
One of the rabbis who brought up this issue on the RCA forum mentioned that, while there are many individuals who simply are so impoverished that they cannot afford proper health care, there are others who are not covered because they have made a decision to spend their money in a different way. They may have felt that they could not par the health insurance premiums but part of the reason was that they felt it was necessary to buy a new car, and not necessarily because their old car no longer worked or was using too much gas. Yet, if we undertake this concern for universal health protection, is it right for us to thereby judge each and every person's financial decisions? Is it right for us, though, not to?
Living in Canada, I know the benefits (and weaknesses) of universal health care. I, personally, find it to be a positive. On the other hand, I also recognize the fundamental moral question that must surface with such a system: where do we draw the line on altruism? When does charity and concern for another become the promotion of selfish, self-interest in this other? The issue goes far beyond health care.
Rabbi Ben Hecht