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Rabbis urge Lieberman not to block health reform

Hartford - Invoking a fundamental moral principle of Judaism, more than two dozen Connecticut rabbis have written to urge U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to reconsider his position on health care reform.

"I think the basic message is that taking care of those in need is really one of the basic tenets and principles of the Jewish religion," said Rabbi Carl Astor of Congregation Beth El in New London. "That's what we've been taught since childhood. And he's an observant Jew. He's got to make a decision as a United States senator, but there are just certain values that transcend politics, and we thought in this case maybe, as rabbis, it would be good to remind him of that."

Astor was one of 29 rabbis who signed the letter, which says, in part, "As rabbis and Jews, we are commanded to seek the welfare and healing of all those in our midst, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable. We are taught to care for justice - and a system that leaves millions of Americans uninsured and under-insured is far from just."

It is an appeal aimed at the heart of a man who is known for being devout in the observance of his faith. Lieberman earned national headlines just last weekend, walking miles through the blustery cold to cast a vote during a rare Saturday session, since he does not use a car on the Sabbath.

The senator would not comment personally on the letter Thursday, but his staff issued a written statement saying that Lieberman, a registered Democrat who has been at loggerheads with his party on health care reform, is seeking to broaden coverage but wary of the costs.

"Senator Lieberman shares many of the concerns in the letter and believes that we should pass a health care bill as soon as possible that will provide health insurance coverage to millions of Americans who lack it and do so in a way that will not create more hardship for the people of Connecticut and America who are suffering under a weak economy," said Lieberman's communications director, Marshall Wittmann.

The rabbis' letter, dated Dec. 7, was originally drafted in an effort to urge Lieberman to drop his threat to help filibuster any bill that contains a public insurance option to compete with private plans, said Rabbi Charles Arian of Congregation Beth Jacob in Norwich, another co-signer.

Lieberman "really threatened to scuttle the whole thing because of his disagreement with certain things. ... And I think that's what's really been upsetting."

In the letter, the rabbis say they respect Lieberman's opposition to the public option and other measures in the bill, but ask him "in the strongest terms not to stand in the way of a vote on health care reform" by supporting Republican efforts to block a vote on the measure.

Noting Lieberman's 1994 remarks in opposition to the use of "holds" and procedural filibusters to block votes in the Senate, the rabbis wrote, "You were right then. Senator Lieberman, please do not prevent millions of Americans from getting the health care they need through use of a tool which you yourself have criticized as unfair and undemocratic."

And while Lieberman has in recent days convinced Democratic leaders to drop their plans for a public option or an expansion of Medicare for the uninsured, some signatories of the letter say Lieberman should rethink his opposition to those measures, in part because of Jewish teachings on the importance of caring for the weak and needy.

"I think our feeling is very strongly that there should be (a public option), that this is a matter of social justice," Astor said. "And without it the bill sort of lacks teeth. It says the idea is to bring costs down and cover more people. That's nice to think about, but it's not workable unless there is some competitive public option, especially for low-income people and the uninsured."

While some members of his congregation oppose the public option, Astor said, most support it.

"I think by and large, from what I can sense, people are very disappointed with him, very disappointed," the rabbi said. "I cringe that our senator should be the one that's blocking this at this time. It really disturbs me."

Arian contrasted the effort to change Lieberman's mind to other recent clashes between religious leaders and the politicians among the faithful, like the recent dispute between Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who has said he was refused Communion by Roman Catholic officials over his support for abortion rights.

"I certainly don't think that just because a religious group polls a certain way that every member of that religious group that holds a public office is required to vote that way," Arian said.

"We believe it is an obligation to care for the sick, and it is an obligation of the community to provide for its members," he added. "Most Jewish groups that have taken a position on this issue have said American society has an obligation to take care of those who are sick. And I'm sure Senator Lieberman would agree with that."

The rabbis were not confident they could get Lieberman to reverse himself, or to help restore the public option now that the language has been dropped from the Senate version of the bill.

"He's dead set against it," Astor said, "and he'll probably succeed in killing it, which I think is a tragedy."


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