Friday, July 14, 2017

What does the Torah say about ... insurance?

Every so often I will get a question from someone in this community or outside of it, of the form “Rabbi, what does Judaism say about X?” Like “What does Judaism say about genetically modified organisms?” Or “What does Judaism say about Snapchat?”

The answer, of course, is that the Torah and other classical Jewish texts basically doesn’t say anything about any of these issues.  However, the Torah includes ethical teachings that can shed light on all of these issues.

In this vein, a question on my mind over the last few months is: What does the Torah say about insurance?

Ostensibly, the answer is nothing.  The first insurance contracts date from the 14th century. The idea that you would pay a small amount of money on a regular basis, to someone who would pay you a lot of money to help you if something bad happened to you - seems like a new idea.  And that you would buy insurance for just about everything in your life - to insure your family against someone dying, or against having health care costs, or having property damage, or a car accident, or losing your job, or having your vacation cancelled, or having damage to the contents of the package you are sending -- appears to be an especially recent phenomenon.

Then again, the Torah and the Talmud do talk about institutions that are quite similar to insurance. Maybe we wouldn’t call them “insurance”’ per se, but we would call them examples of “risk pooling,” which is part of the underlying principle by which insurance operates.

If you lived in an ancient Jewish community, you would have lived in close proximity with other people and other families.  Some people would probably be farmers, while others would be merchants, and maybe others would be hired laborers.  Some would be wealthy, some would be poor, and some would be in the middle.  And if someone should experience a crisis -- for example, if someone became impoverished and needed financial assistance, or suffered illness, or crop failure -- the others in the community were responsible to come to the assistance of the person or people who were experiencing difficulty.  Such assistance would usually be possible to provide because most of the time, most people are not enduring a crisis and are therefore available to assist someone in need.

This is the most basic principle of social welfare as described in the Torah and the Talmud. We read, for example, in Leviticus (19 and 23):  If you have a field, don’t harvest the corners of the field or collect the harvest so thoroughly that there are no dropped sheaves.  Rather, let the poor and the stranger harvest the corners of  your field and glean (pick up the dropped sheaves) in your field.

This is a major theme at the conclusion of the book of Leviticus. Almost at the conclusion of that book, we read: -- וכי ימוך אחיך --- והחזקת בו - “If your brother is starting to become poor, hold on to him and strengthen him.” Prop him up. Keep his head above water.   (Leviticus 25) In Leviticus 19, we read  לא תעמוד על דם רעך “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

The common denominator in all these examples is that people who are doing well at the present moment should help those who are not, in part because such a situation could so easily change -- as the Talmud says (in a precursor to numerous 1960s folk songs), Galgal hu she-chozer ba-olam.The world is like a revolving wheel.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b) .  Sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. It makes sense for us to structure our society such that those who are up are giving some assistance to those who are down.  It’s not only a matter of beneficence and generosity; it’s also a matter of self-interest, because we know that the wheel keeps turning.   If today we are in the position to help others, it may happen in the future that we will be the ones in need.  

But is such assistance best defined as an “obligation,” or is it “an optional but prudent thing to do,” or is it “an optional nice thing to do?”  In other words:  Is it analogous to a tax (which would be an obligation), or is it analogous to an insurance premium (which would be optional but prudent), or is it analogous to charity (which - at least according to American society - would be optional but nice)?

My sense is that Jewish tradition does not really recognize the distinction between these categories.  The Hebrew word usually translated as “charity” is tzedakah, and it means “justice,” and it is considered obligatory, not optional.
Many Americans this year are asking the question: who should be eligible to get health insurance?  Who do we accept into our community, into our circle, to pool risk together with us?  In particular:  if I am healthy, do I need to accept sick people into my circle to pool my risk with them?  I might do much better if I excluded sick people from my community. In fact, If I am extraordinarily healthy, maybe it would be better for me not to be part of one of these communities at all.
Judaism has an unambiguous response to such questions: We don’t make decisions about who is in our community based on how expensive their needs are.
Still on my mind is an incident a couple of months ago in which TV personality Jimmy Kimmel described his new son’s medical condition, how henceforth his son will have to have many heart surgeries, which are likely to be successful but will classify him as having a preexisting condition for the rest of his life.
Former Congressman Joe Walsh responded to Kimmel:  “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care.”
Ever since I heard that, I have been wondering: Setting any actual policy proposals aside, is there a way to interpret the Torah and Jewish ethics to agree with former congressman Joe Walsh, that someone who is fortunate at the current moment is not obligated to share in the risk of someone who - through no fault of his or her own - is experiencing misfortune?  
It appears to me that Joe Walsh and I do not only disagree about health care, but about the nature of community, and what it means to be part of a community and a society.  And these are things on which reasonable people can in fact disagree.  But it is incontrovertible that the Torah is sketching out a vision about the nature of community, and it looks different from the Joe Walsh version -- in that the Torah’s version reiterates the injunction,  lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”