Where healthcare meets Halacha

Thinking Theology

When you tell someone in America that your religion influences your politics, it likely brings to mind politicians bemoaning the decline of family values and images of protesters outside of abortion clinics — at which point, the person listening might slowly back away.

But these largely conservative and often cringe-worthy demonstrations of politics inspired by religion are just a sampling of the diverse ways in which people intertwine their religious and political convictions. Rather, religion can also complement and act as a powerful foundation for progressive values. At least, it has for me.

The majority of my family, including the Orthodox Jewish side, has always considered themselves staunch Democrats, including one self-identified “pinko” — definition: “not exactly Communist red, but pretty darn close.”

While religion and progressive politics might seem to conflict, for me, halacha, or Jewish law, reinforces what I consider to be a central, progressive value: the idea that a society is obligated to collectively provide for the basic needs of its members — whether through healthcare, welfare, food stamps or other policies that seek to confront economic inequalities.

Jewish law, the set of rules Orthodox Jews traditionally follow, places a heavy emphasis on tzedakah, or charity — so much so that there’s a religious legal obligation to give 10 percent of one’s income toward alleviating poverty, a practice known as ma’aser.

The concept is treated with such weight that Maimonides, one of Judaism’s foremost legal scholars, outlined eight different levels of charity, stressing anonymous methods of giving in order to protect recipients from stigma and uphold their dignity.

So, from the perspective of Jewish law, there’s nothing unfamiliar about taxation for the sake of uplifting an underprivileged strata of society. In fact, doing so is treated as a personal obligation to be done as consciously and sensitively as possible.

But my favorite example of Jewish law’s progressive tinge has to be health care. Alongside the concept of ma’aser, Jewish legal thinkers specifically address a person’s individual and communal responsibility to those who can’t afford to pay their medical expenses.

The Shulchan Aruch, arguably the most authoritative comprehensive code of Jewish law, states that if one person has medicine another needs, “it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.” In other words, on an individual level, access to health care has to be made affordable. A more modern source goes even further.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a 20th-century, respected Jewish legal authority, wrote, “When poor people are ill and cannot afford medical expenses, the community sends them a doctor to visit them, and the medicine is paid for by the communal fund.”

While referring to a community much smaller than the United States, the take-away message for me is this: A society is responsible for ensuring that everyone receives medical care at a price they can pay. And if they can’t, so be it. You create a system in which they’re taken care of nonetheless.

Judaism isn’t the only religious tradition to take a firm stance on bridging economic inequalities. Zakat, charity, is the third of the five pillars of Islam and considered a legal requirement. Mohammed is recorded to have said, “Tell them Allah has made zakat obligatory for them, that it should be collected from the rich and distributed among the poor,” an emphatic statement in favor of a communal effort to alleviate poverty. Muslim legal thinkers have come up with specific guidelines on the kinds of wealth that require zakat and the socioeconomic classes not obligated to give, much like taxes.

Similarly, Christian scriptures also emphasize a responsibility to provide for the basic needs of all members of society. While talking to a Catholic friend last week, I mentioned that I was reading the Gospel of Luke for class. “That’s one of my favorites. Luke’s the socialist gospel,” he laughed. I can see why he thinks so.

In the New International Version translation of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to the apostles, Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” and, more radically, “You cannot serve both God and money,” a strong indictment against stinginess. Ultimately, whole books can be written — and are — about Islam and Christianity’s emphasis on individual and communal commitments to the underprivileged, alongside many other religious traditions.

To some, these tidbits of Jewish law might be just antiquated statements written a century to thousands of years ago. But, for me — and I’m sure for members of other faiths — they’re a reminder that religious authorities believed providing for people’s needs, confronting unequal access to healthcare and alleviating poverty, is more than just a nice practice, but a God-given mandate. Doctrine provides me with an empowering foundation to advocate for policies that confront economic inequalities and ask us to think of the United States as a community with individual responsibilities to the collective. So, yes, my religion influences my politics, but no need to back away. The relationship is more complicated than you might think. While many conservatives visibly draw on religious tradition, it may be time they consider their faiths’ full range of political implications.

Sara Weissman writes the Monday column on religious identities. You can contact her at [email protected].