Four Magic Words

When I was growing up, we had watches, diapers, telephones, stores, mail, and milk.

Now, with the advent of digital watches, disposable diapers, cell phones, online shopping, email, and two percent milk, we have analog watches, cloth diapers, landlines, brick and mortar stores, snail mail, and whole milk.

Don’t you just love retronyms and how they so vividly paint a picture of variety and change?

Which brings me to friends (no, not the sitcom).

I had lots of friends when I was growing up, and I met and interacted with each one personally. In fact, even more than 65 years later I still do so with some of the same ones, like I did this year over a Pesach lunch of matzah pizza, frittata, and memories. But we now have Facebook or email friends whom we’ve never met — hence, the retronym of real friends.

So, I make a special effort to meet to meet Facebook friends, as they say, IRL (in real life), which I’ve done successfully a number of times. This happened most recently just after Pesach, when the scholar-in-residence in our shul, Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, was a FB friend with whom I finally had the opportunity to speak with face to face, no books involved.

Although we’ve often disagreed, in posts and comments, over theological, social, and political matters, our encounter was extremely pleasant. And it was particularly so after shul (mea culpa, he sat behind me during services and we actually chatted a bit then as well), when I told him (honestly) how much I enjoyed his sermon. And then I added: “I especially liked your use of the magic words.” He gave me a puzzled look; he knew he hadn’t said please, thank you, or abracadabra. It was clear he had no idea what I meant, so I explained: “‘On the other hand’; you made an argument and then you said ‘on the other hand’ and gave the opposite view.”

How refreshing that was. He had discussed a controversial and complex issue concerning conversion in Israel. In seriously analyzing that issue, though, not only did he not dismiss one side with a sound bite, he noted the strengths and weaknesses of each side of the matter.

On the Other Hand (OTOH). We need two hands for so many things: opening a bottle, buttoning a shirt, tying shoes, playing baseball (yes, I know about Pete Gray and Jim Abbott, the exceptions who prove the rule), applauding, and playing guitar, for example. Well, thoughtful and meaningful argument and discussion are also two-handed tasks, perhaps even more difficult than Pete fielding and throwing and Jim pitching.

OTOH helps us think; indeed, it often makes us think. OTOH adds a richness that otherwise is missing; it fleshes out issues, forcing us to question our own preconceived notions. OTOH is the yellow light in a discussion, teaching us to slow down a bit and take some more time before we get to where we think we want to go or, sometimes, where we end up going — not always the same place.

This is true in writing as well as preaching. I recently read a column in the Jewish Standard arguing that single-payer health care systems are terrible and would be catastrophic for the United States to adopt. Perhaps. While I don’t really know quite enough to have a definitive opinion, my initial inclination is that such a fundamental change in our health care insurance system would not be the best way to deal with what is a serious national problem that grows as our current system continues to be undermined by harmful legislation and lawsuits.

I was bothered by the article. Not necessarily by its conclusions, though I thought they were vastly overstated, particularly its claim that such a system would be especially bad for the Jews. Really? It’s a Jewish issue now?

More importantly, though, my major difficulty was the complete lack of any OTOH.

There are certainly serious issues with single payer systems, though, as I have said before, my current insurance, Medicare, a single payer system for those over 65, is the very best health insurance I’ve had in many decades.

But just as there may be problems with single payer systems in other countries, as the article noted, are there no serious problems with the health care insurance in America? Perhaps, OTOH almost 30 million people in the United States have no health insurance at all. Or, OTOH many people with high deductibles policies cannot afford to pay for, and thus must forgo, necessary medical care. Or, there’s no transparency about the cost of medical care and thus a complete inability to do comparison shopping.

How about, OTOH drug companies can, and sometimes do, double and triple the price of life-saving drugs without rhyme or reason (other than profits), resulting in deaths. Or, there are too many medical expenses bankruptcies (no matter what the actual number is).
Or, or, or. Such a complicated issue cries out for some OTOH. All we were given, though, was one hand clapping.

Of course, I didn’t expect the column to include all these arguments. I certainly understand that the primary focus of a column is the point of view and the opinion of its writer. And I empathize with a writer feeling the pressure of word limits (thank you Word for having word counts appear automatically in the newest version). But completely ignoring the other hand weakens, not strengthens, the argument.

(In thinking about my own columns, I realize I was, at times, also probably guilty of ignoring OTOH. Can’t change history, but I’ll try to do better in the future.)

I’m sure some of my doctor friends will have answers to certain of my OTOH’s. And if we discuss them, maybe I’ll realize some of the problems I see aren’t as real as I think they are; maybe they’ll realize that some problems they minimize are truly serious. Or maybe we’ll still disagree — while remaining IRL friends of course. But at least we’ll have had a serious discussion of the issues rather than a Potemkin village view of a difficult problem.

I don’t know how I’d vote on instituting a single payer system. Or exactly where I come out on the conversion issue Prof. Woolf raised. But I do know I’d want to get my head and my hands around those issues before I decide. One head but both hands.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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