Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: The ‘Values’ of ‘Entitlements’ or of ‘Earned Benefits’

One benefit of being on sabbatical has been my ability to remain current with the news.  And what has caught my eye – and ear – has been the public debate on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

As the Administration and Congress each try to gain advantage in this clash of ideas, their arguments make me think of the need to reframe these political arguments into an understanding and implementation of the values put forward by Jewish tradition.

One side rails against the continued growth of these programs as the Baby Boomer generation retires.  They claim that these “entitlements” bring about an ‘immoral’ kind of dependency that is a drain on our nation’s economy.

The other side counters that Social Security and Medicare recipients have paid into the system over their working lifetime, and they are rightly to benefit from their personal ‘deposits’ over the years.

Now, I am no economist, but many argue that these funds are pretty healthy and not in need of much attention.  But even if these funds were in danger, no one seems to know for certain whether ‘chaining’ the CPI (reducing cost of living increases) or Medicare ‘premium supports’ (vouchers to assist in purchasing health care) would guarantee the long-term solvency of these funds.

But rather than debate foreboding economic forecasts or the fear of what reduced Medicare funding could mean to a retiree’s wallet, let’s examine instead the Jewish value of what these retirement payments represent.

Retiring income earners have paid taxes over their working lives to fuel the economy.  Whether in the form of income, Social Security payroll, sales, property, and other taxes, these workers have supported the nation’s private and government economies by earning incomes and paying taxes.  When they retire, we should see it, therefore, as a supreme - and basic - value to reward them for their concrete contributions to our nation’s economic health.  We must compensate them with the ability to live with health and dignity for the rest of their lives.  They should not worry at all about the vicissitudes of the nation’s future economy.

This attitude represents the direction of Torah!  These retired workers are the elderly that our religious tradition refers to, the ones ‘before whom we are to rise and for whom we are to show respect’ (Leviticus 19:32), and it is demeaning and insulting to view them as moochers and lazy, as some have opined.

To me, that is the price of our government’s doing business.  These methods of supporting our retired elderly are simply past investments for maintaining our nation and keeping her prepared for whatever events have occurred in her history.  It makes every bit of sense to me, therefore, to maintain the dignity and health of our senior citizens, and not shortchange them in any way.

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