Today the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” will not be gutted of one of its key provisions: that federal subsidies to pay for health insurance would be available to qualified applicants who sign up through a health care exchange. The question hinged on whether or not those who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than a state exchange would continue to be eligible.
I admit I was nervous leading up to this ruling. Back when I was on my high school debate team, a topic one year was health care, and we had to argue—both pro and con—universal health care. It was then that I really started to learn more about the health care system in our country, an issue that has stuck with me ever since. And since I have had to utilize health care and health insurance several times for fairly serious issues, it has made me even more aware of the need for access and insurance.
And while it may not be perfect, as a means for a large number of people to gain access to health care and health insurance I was a supporter of the ACA. (And I am currently a customer.) I was nervous about the fact that we may backtrack, and that people would lose their newly won benefits.
Here in Washington, of course, those who receive subsidies would have been safe. Our state is one of the minority (!) of states that set up its own exchange, and the ruling would not have impacted citizens of Washington in the same way it would have those in other states.
That discrepancy in the states is what the argument hinged on, and why, as a rabbi, I am very pleased with the outcome. Not because of the merits of the law—I only have a layperson’s opinions about that—but because of the merit of the decision. The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is a victory for Obamacare, yes, but it is also a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition.
The case hinged on 4 words: that subsidies apply to those who purchase health insurance through an exchange “established by the State.” The question before the court is, does this apply to only those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange, or does it apply to both those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange and those who bought their health insurance through the federal exchange.
When the law was written and passed, the assumption would be that all 50 states would establish health care exchanges to serve as the statewide marketplace for health insurance. Many states—ostensibly for political reasons—refused to set up exchanges. It then fell to the federal government to establish an exchange to serve those who live in states without exchanges.
But the language of “the state” remained, and the plaintiffs of the suit argued that we need to take the law at its plain meaning: since it mentions “the state” it must refer to ONLY an exchange set up by a state, and not the federal government. The government argued that we need to take the law at its intended meaning: that “the state” is not a technical term to refer only to one of the 50 states, but it refers to the government in general.
Now all of this could have been avoided with better editing and tracking as the bill went through its various permutations. But it was passed as it was written, and that is over which the Justices were arguing.
And so this is a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition because the Justices chose an interpretive reading,
looking at intent and spirit, rather than a strict literal reading, looking at paper and letter. For this is I believe how we are meant to approach our sacred texts—not strictly to the letter, but with an eye towards meaning-making and spirit.
Law—whether civil in this case or spiritual in Judaism—is meant to uplift the individual and community to a higher level. This sometimes requires a look at context and intent. This is especially true as we seek to interpret our Jewish sacred texts. Some of the laws and practices of the Torah are foreign to us in their literalness or practice (in this week’s portion Hukkat, for example, ritual impurity from a dead body). But the spirit of the laws and the intentions behind them (coping with and confronting death) are very present and important. The letter pushes us away but the spirit draws us close. We seek to understand the spirit of the text in order to make it meaningful.
Additionally, interpreting Scripture through the narrow lens of literalness oftentimes leads to destructive ends. We see this in the rise of fundamentalism around the world in which a strict reading of text leads to fear and hatred of the other, the desire to control and an inability to be open and pluralistic. In the oft-quoted words of Chief Justice Roberts from today’s opinion: “A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” While admittedly far from religious fundamentalism, Roberts hints that a strict reading of text would not only be against the intent of the law, but have harmful ends.
In the end, Roberts and the Majority chose people over text. The Minority, in arguing for a strict reading, chose text over people. And that is a lesson for us as well. Scripture is important. Text is important. For Judaism, Torah and text is the root of our tradition. But we must approach it as a living text, meant to help not to harm, meant to expand not to limit. Torah’s words are meant to inhabit our souls, not simply be parsed on the scroll.