Rabbi, physician call for spiritual Rx here

The health-care industry received a vicious thrashing Monday from a man of the Torah and a woman of the scalpel.

At a bio-ethics conference in San Francisco, Rabbi Alan Henkin told an audience that today's health-care system is "utterly incompatible" with Judaism.

And Dr. Gail Povar announced that she would discuss the topic in a way that would make "everyone in the room very uncomfortable."

The pair spoke at a conference called "Bio-Ethics & Sacred Decisions: Medical Technology, Liberal Judaism & Our Lives." The four-day conference began last Friday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The conference featured physicians, clergy members, philosophers, and ethicists discussing topics ranging from cloning to chronic illness to the culture of aging. It was sponsored by the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Henkin, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar in Lancaster near Los Angeles, asserted the drastic state of modern-day medicine might be well served by relying on spirituality and ancient medicines.

"What we are facing today — with a health-care system so fundamentally lacking — is utterly incompatible with Jewish tradition," Henkin said Monday in a talk titled "Alternative Pathways to Healing: A Jewish Perspective."

Jewish tradition demands the sick be tended to, he said, regardless of their ailments or level of income.

Judaism's 5,000-year history is also rich with alternative medicine, he added, citing amulets, herbs, incantations and prayers as examples of ancient healing techniques.

Spirituality and alternative treatment is often anathema to HMOs and health-care providers, Henkin said. Then he offered a compromise.

Stating that hospitals are often hostile environments for spiritual counselors — and that doctors often view them as interlopers — he advised rabbis to ask the hospital staff to join them in prayer with the patients.

"That usually gets them out of the room within five minutes," he quipped.

The rabbi also suggested that doctors prescribe spiritual exercises on a daily basis.

"We could see the day when doctors tell their patients to daven 20 minutes a day. Or, even better, when doctors write out prescriptions for synagogue affiliations."

Povar, a clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University's medical school in Washington, D.C., echoed Henkin's views of an unhealthy system.

In discussing the "Jewish Voice in Health Care Debates," she lacerated the health-care system as morally bankrupt and dominated by special interests.

"The majority of people in this room will not be affected by the inequities in the health-care system," Povar said. "It is the marginalized communities, such as the African-American community, that will bear the brunt of a depleted system."

Povar called upon all Americans to forgo "luxuries" covered by health insurance, especially affluent populations such as the Jews.

The schism between the haves and have-nots is deepened when people insist that health insurance pay for procedures such as cosmetic surgery, Povar said.

As part of the same continuum, Povar condemned "America's neurotic obsession with technology."

She described a circular pattern, in which high-tech companies introduce a new gadget, the media scrambles to cover it and ill-informed consumers demand it as part of their treatment.

"The high-tech industry is sexy," Povar said. "It sells magazines and newspapers. But what is doesn't do is assist the vast majority of people. A fancy new ventricular assistance device may receive eons of coverage, but no one will talk about how contaminated water supplies affect thousands of lives."

In the end, Povar said, the Jewish community must realize that it exists as part of a larger community — and act accordingly.

"The Jewish tradition is a moral tradition," Povar said. "And the voice of morality is the voice most needed in the debate over health care."