Torah Perspectives on Insurance by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
Insurance is a fundamental aspect of almost every individual and family financial plan. If one is young and has a large family, adequate insurance to protect the family is essential. In addition to discussing Torah perspectives on insurance for individuals and families in this issue, we will also present and expand upon a proposal made by Rav J. David Bleich concerning the purchase of insurance as a community. We will begin by discussing the permissibility of acquiring insurance and the possibility that in certain cases insurance may be required.
The Permissibility of Purchasing Insurance – Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadiah Yosef
Both Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 2:111) and Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Teshuvot Yechaveh Daat 3:85) were asked whether or not Halacha permits acquiring insurance, because perhaps insurance indicates a lack of trust in Hashem. Both of these authorities wholeheartedly permit one to acquire insurance. They state that insurance is a legitimate business venture and does not demonstrate a lack of faith in Hashem. Rav Moshe points out that Hashem endowed humanity in recent generations with the idea of establishing insurance. Moreover, Hashem provides the individual with the intelligent idea to purchase insurance. As long as we grasp that Hashem deserves the credit for giving us these ideas, Hashem credits us with having complete faith in Him. This idea is expressed in Targum Onkelos to Devarim 8:18, where the Torah states, “And you shall remember Hashem, your God, because He is the One Who gave you strength to make wealth.” Onkelos translates this Pasuk as commanding us to recall that Hashem presented us with the idea to acquire property. Rav Moshe notes that we should have faith that Hashem will provide us with the means to pay the insurance premiums each payment period. Rav Moshe extends this Heteir to life, fire, theft, and car insurance.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef (among other authorities) cites Tosafot (Kiddushin 41a s.v. Assur LeAdam) as a precedent to permit the purchase of insurance. The Gemara (ad. loc.) states that it is forbidden for a father to marry off his daughter when she is a minor (Kiddushei Ketanah) unless the girl is old enough to express her wish to marry a specific individual. Tosafot, in turn, record that the practice among Jews in his time and area (twelfth-thirteen century France-Germany) was to marry off their very young daughters, against the Gemara’s recommendation. Tosafot explain that since they live in time of distress (apparently referring to the Crusades), they must seize an opportunity to marry off a daughter because if one had sufficient funds to provide a dowry, he did not know if he would have those funds when the girl would come of age. Tosafot do not condemn such behavior as lacking Bitachon (trust in Hashem); rather, they sanction this practice as a prudent financial precaution. Rav Ovadiah argues that purchasing an insurance policy may be evaluated in a similar manner.
Similarly, Rav Ovadiah cites Tosafot (Bava Metiza 70b s.v. Tashich) who adopt a lenient approach regarding another matter due to the socioeconomic pressures of the time. The Gemara (ad. loc.) records that some say there is a rabbinic prohibition to charge interest even when lending to Nochrim under certain circumstances. Tosafot, however, cite Rabbeinu Tam who defends the practice of that time to lend money to Nochrim with interest in all situations. He argues that since it is impossible for us to survive in business unless we charge interest to Nochrim, we may rely on the lenient opinions that permit such lending. Once again, Tosafot do not advocate simply relying on miraculous intervention to earn an adequate living, or exhort us to bolster our faith in God’s ability to deliver us from economic distress. Rather, they condone relying on lenient opinions when necessary.
Interestingly, Islamic Law, LeHavdil, forbids the institution of life insurance. Life insurance is illegal in Libya and Iran. Furthermore, an editorial appeared in the New York Times February 23, 1853 condemning the use of life insurance as leading to laziness. Many Christian theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries condemned it for similar reasons. Rav J. David Bleich (Tradition 31:3, page 61) notes that these non-Jewish objections to life insurance are not reflected in the rabbinic literature from the time of the Rishonim until today. Indeed, both Rav Moshe and Rav Ovadiah note that common practice even among the most pious of individuals is to purchase insurance, a further indication of the permissibility of this venture. He cautions, however, that the policy should be in harmony with Halacha and not violate the prohibition to charge interest or require an autopsy in case of death.
Hashkafic Lessons Gleaned from Rav Moshe’s Teshuvah
We should take note of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s assertion that Hashem has endowed mankind with the idea of establishing insurance. This expresses a major idea in Torah thought – that divine revelation continues until this very day (albeit in a subtle manner). Indeed, on Shabbat and Yom Tov we specifically request from Hashem such revelation, beseeching Him to “enlighten our eyes in [His] Torah.” This may be understood as asking HaKadosh Baruch Hu to provide us with novel insights (Chiddushim) in Torah.
Moreover, Rav Moshe’s statement teaches that such revelation is not limited to Torah matters, but also applies to non-spiritual matters. We seem to daven for such revelation in the fourth Berachah of the weekday Shemoneh Esrei in which we ask Hashem for intelligence. Based on the Targum Onkelos that Rav Moshe cites, we may also say that when we pray for Parnassah (sustenance), we are not only asking Hashem to create opportunities for us to earn money, but also requesting an endowment of intelligence to make the appropriate business choices.
In addition, I once cited this Teshuvah in a response to a Talmid who asked what spiritual value lies in the study of history. At first, I responded that in studying Jewish History one is presented with an opportunity to perceive the hand of Hashem preserving Am Yisrael in its struggles throughout the millennia (see Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 1:10). Subsequently I added that Rav Moshe’s assertion about continuing divine revelation teaches that the study of history actually is the study of the ongoing divine revelation in all areas of life. This is especially true according to the Ramban (Devarim 17:15) and the Zohar (in “Berich Shemei,” which we recite when we open the Aron HaKoshesh to remove a Sefer Torah), who teach that Hashem controls both the appointment and actions of leaders.
We should note, in fairness, that although the ideas expressed in this Teshuvah may be marshaled to encourage secular education, Rav Moshe in this Teshuvah writes that one should prepare to earn a living only when the need presents itself.
Requirements to Purchase Insurance
Rabbinic authorities not only permit acquiring insurance, but even require it in some cases. For example, Teshuvot Beit Shlomo (Choshen Mishpat 48) rules that since it is customary to acquire insurance, one partner who pays the premium for fire insurance may recover half the cost from the second partner. He cites as precedent the Mishnah (Bava Batra 7b) which states that all residents of a town are required to contribute to the construction of a protective wall around the town. He reasons that insurance costs fall under the same category as expenditures for protecting a city. (See Rav Bleich’s essay for further sources regarding authorities who seem to either support or disagree with the Beit Shlomo’s ruling.) Rav Bleich notes that “Beit Shlomo’s analogy of insurance to the erection of fortifications for the defense of a city certainly indicates that seeking protection against financial loss is ideologically no different from seeking protection against marauders.”
Rav Bleich (in the aforementioned article, pp. 62-66) writes that the Jewish community should purchase medical and life insurance as a group. He cites as precedent the aforementioned Mishnah in Bava Batra that requires all residents of a town to contribute to the erection of a protective wall. Rav Bleich notes that the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 163:1) rules that even a minority of the residents may insist that a levy be imposed upon all townspeople in order to raise funds for such purposes. The Rama comments that this rule applies to any communal need. In addition, he rules that townspeople may compel one another to contribute to a fund to provide for the needs of strangers in their midst and to provide charity for the poor.
Rav Bleich states the well-known fact that people who lack adequate medical insurance often are denied access to first-class medical care. He cites studies that demonstrate that people without proper insurance have a much higher mortality rate than those who have medical insurance. He therefore concludes, “The community clearly has an obligation to provide for the medical needs of the indigent. This establishment of a fund to defray medical expenses represents both a needed social amenity as well as a charitable obligation, and the community is fully empowered to levy a tax for either purpose.”
Rav Bleich continues:
“A quite similar argument might be made for a communal policy requiring mandatory life insurance coverage. Sadly, there have been cases in which a young breadwinner has died at an early age leaving a widow and minor children destitute. The support of the widow and orphans then becomes a communal burden. The community certainly has a charitable obligation with regard to their support. It also has the authority to impose a tax in order to establish a charitable fund in anticipation of such needs. It would appear that the community would also have the right to use those funds to defray the cost of a group life insurance policy for each of its members, if for no other reason than on the grounds that such an arrangement is cheaper, more efficient, and more dignified than simple charity.”
It also seems that communities in which most members are homeowners should establish communal mortgage insurance policies. This can avoid foreclosures in the wake of tragic deaths of young breadwinners.
Another consideration in favor of establishing such policies is the extraordinary high cost of Orthodox living outside of Israel. Yeshiva tuition and other costs are spiraling out of control, and the need to find innovative solutions to the growing financial pressures is great. Jewish schools should purchase insurance, security, and many other items as an organized group in order to benefit from volume discounts. Jewish organizations must explore ways to purchase communal insurance policies as well as other items in a vitally necessary effort to reduce the high costs of Jewish living.
Rav Bleich writes that even if the community fails to organize as a group to establish such insurance policies, smaller communal groups should establish such policies. Synagogues and Jewish organizations must do their best to implement these essential plans.