There is a Biblical tradition which could turn the modern health care debate on its head. The Talmud infers from a verse in this week’s Torah portion, “He shall surely heal,” (Exodus 21:19) that God has granted the physician the ability to heal. Rav Acha declared, “Blessed is the doctor who heals without payment.” Why shouldn’t a physician be paid?
Rabbi J. David Bleich explains that, unlike the western conception for which the doctor-patient relationship is “contractual,” and a doctor may refuse to serve a patient, Judaism regards the physician as not merely acting on behalf of the patient but in the service of God. He offers an analogy to a drowning person. There is an ethical (and Biblical) obligation to save the person from drowning. However, not everyone’s obligation is equal in this regard. A non-swimmer who tries to help may actually make the situation worse, whereas an expert swimmer would surely be obligated to intervene (with no compensation expected). Similarly, the doctor, having special lifesaving skills, has a religious-legal duty to heal the sick, even for no pay.
The respected Israeli rabbinic leader, R. Eliezer Waldenberg, wrote that it is unnecessary to allocate charity to pay doctors to provide medical care for poor people, because anyway the doctor is obligated to heal the sick. He adds, “However, in a place that has more than one doctor, it is unfair to throw this obligation on anyone of them in particular, therefore it is proper to establish a charity fund for this purpose.” (Ramat Rachel #24)
Our modern health care debate is focused on how to get people to pay (insurance mandate or not). Imagine if, instead, we approached the issue as being one of how will physicians get (fairly) paid?
Rabbi Mitch Levine