Danger and Responsibility

Rabbi Shabtai A. Rappoport

F. considers himself a sportsman. Not that he is engaged in any athletics on a regular basis, but he likes speed, and a moderate measure of risk. His cars were always fast, and he never observed the legal speed limits. Still, he was a very proficient driver, and in twenty years' driving had never caused a single accident. Recently, when F. was caught by the traffic police, and as result was brought to trial, the sharp reprimand issued by the judge started bothering him. What had always been a game, seemed different now. Perhaps the judge was indeed right, and he was a criminal no different than an ordinary burglar or a drug dealer.

A noted biblical decree (Deut. XXII 8) orders us to erect a fence surrounding our roofs, lest a person falls off it and be killed. There is also a general command, not relating particularly to a perilous roof: "And you shall not put blood upon your house" - namely, that nothing in your possession should consist a threat to human life.

Maimonedes (Laws of Man-Slayer ch. XI, 5-6) elaborates on this regulation, and records a rabbinical interpretation of the biblical decree:

"Several actions were prohibited by the Sages, because they endanger human life. Whoever breaks these prohibitions claiming 'I am exposing my own life to risk - what concern is it to others?' or 'I do not consider this act as being dangerous' will be sentenced to corporal punishment".
Could it then be concluded that a person is absolutely prohibited from taking any risk upon himself, or must he behave only in a way that will absolutely pose no danger to others? Is such behavior at all possible for a man inhabiting not a deserted island, but a densely occupied city? Is such a prohibition enforceable, and does mere car driving consist a crime - after all any driving may end up in an accident? Where can we draw the line between normal and criminal behavior?

Maimonedes (Laws of Personal Conduct ch. IV) writes that maintaining proper health is required from any person seeking spiritual perfection. Such a person should, therefore, eat only healthy foods, and abstain from unhealthy ones. However, unlike what he recorded in Laws of Man-Slayer, such an abstinence is a recommendation and not an absolute decree. The reason for that difference should be explored, a person who eats unhealthy foods does take a health - and consequently life - risk upon himself. Should there not be an absolute prohibition against eating red meat, since such meat may be involved in increasing the risk of contracting a serious heart disease?

It is well known that in order to extricate human life from danger, one is permitted to transgress most laws. However, the exact definition of such a danger is not clear. There is no doubt that one may stop a seriously bleeding wound, although by doing so he infringes the laws of Shabbat. But is one permitted to infringe the laws of Shabbat in order to travel to a gymnasium to have some exercise, claiming that regular physical activity diminishes the risk of a possible heart disease?

The laws of Shabbat refer specifically to a treatment of a dangerously sick person as a case that justifies an infraction of the laws of Shabbat. But the sickness is irrelevant. Some ailments do not pose a threat to life, and on the other hand healthy people may find themselves in mortal danger. The laws should then have referred to a person at risk, regardless of his being sick or healthy. It seems, therefore, that the Sages in referring specifically to sickness, intended to make a proper definition of a threat to life, bearing in mind that our very day-to-day existence creates constant risk to our life. As someone has noted, life itself is a mortal danger - only live people die. Students of ecology suggest that the environment poses threats of mortal cancer, but most people are quite indifferent to that, seeking no emergency means to stop that risk.

Human society in general, in every generation and era, lives under a certain baseline of danger that is considered to be normal, calling for no special immediate steps. We define normal people, living under normal circumstances as healthy, whereas sickness is the exception. A sick person, in every generation, is the one who calls for special treatment. The Sages probably used sickness as a simile to any danger that permits the violation of the law. Such a danger is one that in contemporary custom calls for a special emergency treatment. A thousand years ago, even an evil eye, or a curse could be thus regarded. But any condition that is considered to be normal, is regarded as not risky, hence permitting no infraction of the law.

Similarly, the concept of a danger whose prevention is the responsibility of each individual, is measured by current custom. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Vol. VII Choshen Mishpat res.76) rules that because cigarette smoking is not currently considered as posing an immediate danger, it could not be regarded as prohibited under the laws of man-slayer.

However, acts declared illegal by society, because of their being considered as posing an immediate threat to life or health, are certainly considered criminal by Jewish laws. A person who commits those acts is regarded as a potential man-slayer. Thus illegal speeding is strictly prohibited, even to the most skilled driver, because an individual's responsibility for the lives of others, as well as for his own life prohibits him from posing such a real threat to these lives.

The judge who compared F. to an ordinary burglar was quite lenient with him. However a serious offense burglary is, relinquishing one's responsibility for human life, is a crime much more serious.

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