I often hear Christian groups telling folks to repent, but it’s rare that I hear it from Jewish groups, especially liberal ones. But today, I got an e-mail from Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Philadelphia-based Shalom Center telling Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to do just that. It is actually called a “Jewish letter of rebuke.”
The 1,950 Jewish signers of a petition at www.shalomctr.org told Mr. Lieberman that he was violating the Torah by opposing provisions in the bill for public option and Medicare coverage at the age of 55.
“A lot of people in the Jewish community were outraged,” Rabbi Waskow, the petition’s orginator, told me when I called this afternoon. “It is very unusual for 150 rabbis and 1,800 people to protest. Lots of the signatories are leaders of Jewish organizations, and a lot are Jews in the pews. This has to do with health care for the lower and lower-middle classes.”
However, Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, joined 40 Republicans in opposing the bill until those provisions were dropped earlier this week.
— Julia Duin, religion editor
Here is the letter:
We are rabbis, cantors, and other committed Jews. Many of us were delighted in 2000 when you were nominated for Vice-President and proclaimed to all that you were an observant Jew, carrying into the highest level of public service the values of the Jewish people.
Now we see with deep distress that you have announced that you will not support the bill before the Senate to bring health care in America even part way toward the universal and affordable coverage that is assumed in every other industrial country, including Israel. You have announced that you intend to join a quasi-filibuster against even taking an up-and-down vote on the bill if it contains either a “public option” provision or one extending the universally praised Medicare system to some younger people.
Doing this would thwart the will of a majority of the Senate, the majority of the American people, and the majority of the American Jewish community.
In our eyes, this is not the behavior of an “observant” Jew. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice shall you seek,” is among the Torah’s most important commandments. And in pursuit of justice, no autonomous Jewish community has ever allowed the poor to go without healing. It is clear that the present health insurance system based on private insurance companies is broken in every aspect except assuring enormous profits to itself. It costs Americans the highest medical costs in the world while providing mediocre health care as measured by life expectancies, newborn death rates, and other indices across the developed world.
We recognize that major health insurance companies are headquartered in Connecticut and that you may view your obligations to them as constituents as an important political responsibility. Yet thousands of Americans die each year unnecessarily because they are refused coverage by or are unable to purchase insurance from these same companies.
So we believe your obligation of pekuach nefesh, saving life, saving the lives of the flesh-and-blood citizens of Connecticut, shaped in flesh and blood in God’s Image and subject to damage of that same flesh and blood that requires healing, is an even higher obligation than you owe to your insurance-company constituents. Indeed, two-thirds of your flesh-and-blood constituents support a health-care bill that includes a strong public option.
We therefore call you to do tshuvah – to turn yourself again toward fulfilling the commands of Torah and meeting the needs of the American people. Then we will be happy once again that you are bringing the values of an “observant Jew” to the public service of the American people.