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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie Headshot

Thank God for the Wisdom of the Supreme Court

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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.

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.