Rav Cherlow on Risk Management and Reopening Society

Most synagogues, including my own, have been considering the question of “reopening” and returning to community life from our narrow lens as a synagogue. However, local, state, and national governments have many more factors to consider than synagogues do when considering when to allow businesses to open and gatherings to take place – the economy, people’s livelihoods, mental health, etc.  How do we balance and manage the public health risks with other public needs? Does Jewish ethics or Halakha have suggestions or models for governments?

I reiterate that this is a separate question from that of synagogues – synagogues will likely remain closed after other businesses reopen for two reasons: (1) we do not have these other factors to consider – the economy and people’s livelihoods, for the most part, are not dependent on our status, and (2) the nature of synagogue life, programming, personnel, and budget makes reopening more difficult for us than for other businesses.

I posed this question to my teacher, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who is a Posek and a Jewish ethicist. What would a government run according to the values of the Torah and Halakha do in this situation?  Below is his response in my translation (please assume that any errors or confusing statements are due to translation).

Risk management is among the more fascinating issues that we have discussed in the past few years. I have written about it from a few perspectives. For example, may the national healthcare system subsidize technologies that improve quality of life even though their inclusion would cause other potentially life-saving drugs to be eliminated from the budget? May one drive to a simcha (Bar Mitzvah, engagement party) in a remote settlement in Sderot during periods of increased attack? These are questions we deal with as individuals, but they also touch upon Judaism’s view of state policy.

At first glance, there is a prohibition to put oneself in danger and Pikuah Nefesh (saving lives) is one of the more important principles in Judaism. Based on this, presumably the answer would be that our priority must be Pikuah Nefesh; we may not restart the economy, even if this would lead to a great collapse of the economy, since Pikuah Nefesh is the overriding value.

However, this is not a sound ethical option for four reasons:

  1. Life is dangerous. We don’t do anything in life that doesn’t involve some level of risk. If we were to accept the premise that one may not put oneself in any dangerous situation, we would be prohibited from leaving the house for any leisure activity, trip, and countless other activities that we could not go on without. The central Halakhic source for this is the permission to take risks if they are needed for one’s livelihood, even though that’s not Pikuah Nefesh. (See Noda Biyehuda, Yoreh Deah 10)
  2. A collapse of the economy would put us in other situations of Pikuah Nefesh – fewer funds available for saving lives, for military or security needs, etc. If so, what could be the ethical justification for that approach?
  3. Halakha permits a king to engage in a “discretionary war” (Milhemet Reshut, as opposed to necessary/defensive war) even if it means up to 16% of the soldiers could be killed (Shevuot 35b, Tosafot there). This teaches us that matters of national interest play a central role in our considerations of risk management and of whether to permit placing oneself in danger (of course, the King must have reasonable justification of the possible benefits of this war).
  4. Of course, we have a responsibility to each other and to incur some losses in order to save others. However, that has a limit too—we are permitted to live our lives! If we were not, we would be obligated to donate all of our money at all times to help others acquire the life-saving drugs or procedures they need. I have already written at length about this matter in another essay.

Therefore, we must balance two competing factors. On the one hand, the Halakha is that we are generally prohibited from placing ourselves in danger, and we are obligated to save lives of others who are in danger. On the other hand, we have an ethical imperative that is necessary for life: we must be able to have an economy and live our lives normally.

Is there a precise line we can draw? Do we know exactly when considerations of Pikuah Nefesh override other ones, and when we may live normally?

It’s a very difficult line to draw. Certainly, when there is a high level of danger we must say Pikuah Nefesh takes precedence. But we must tread carefully with that too. I think we can use the case of “discretionary wars” as a guide, that is, if there is a serious risk to more than one-sixth of the population, we should favor the prohibitive stance and legislate emergency life-saving measures; if it’s a smaller risk, there are significant ethical reasons to balance competing factors and initiate a return to normal living.

I would like to emphasize that I do not believe that, according to Halakha, the government is permitted to “give up” on a sixth of the population. That is the limit, the line that we have found that Halakha draws. Above that number, and there is no conversation, debate, or consideration for economic or other needs, just as above that number a King may not initiate a discretionary war for any reason. Below that number, the King must engage in a cost-benefit analysis of going to war and can consider a multitude of factors. The riskier the war, the greater the potential benefit must be. Thank God our numbers are far lower than 16%. Therefore, there is room for governments to consider a variety of factors in making their decisions and Halakha gives authorities the flexibility to do so.

About the Author
Roy Feldman is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York. Prior to that, he was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and taught Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has studied at and holds degrees from Yeshivat Petach Tikva, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldman believes that a rabbi’s primary role in the twenty-first century is to articulate, embody, and exemplify the reasons why traditional Judaism remains relevant today.
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