Risks in the modern sense are not systematically addressed by Talmudic thought. Last week, the Talmudic daf yomi reading (bShabbat 129b) covered the risk-taking principle of “The Lord preserves the simple” (shomer peta’im HaShem -- see smoking example). In this post, I’ll try to get a handle on the overall Talmudic context for risk-taking, esp. as it may apply to environmental and occupational hazards. I’ll analyze the shomer peta’im HaShem principle later. [This post and accompanying chart are in draft form. Feel free to comment or ignore…]
Risks are somehow wrapped up in dangers, yet risks are not the same as dangers. So, to judge environmental, occupational, consumer, and other health risks from Talmudic state of mind, we first need to ask, what are dangers?
From danger to risk. Danger is a common term throughout halakhic literature. Dangers include anything that works to one’s serious disadvantage, causing loss, pain, damage, or injury. Life is an awesome and marvelous gift, yet danger is omnipresent. Some basic human activities hurt, like giving birth and dying. Plus, accidents happen. And God happens. In Judaism, the omnipresent HaShem (d/b/a The Almighty) is awe-inspiring and fearsome. Merciful and kind, God is also utterly dangerous. Arguably, any serious loss or harm is caused by HaShem or, at least, under God’s watch.
Danger can be felt. You can have an intuition of danger or look at the white of its eyes. Stand in the eye of the hurricane and then experience its destructiveness. Danger is about as real as pain and death.
“Risk” is a step removed from danger. Risk is a concept, a category of understanding (Kant) that adds to danger another element: chance, hazard, probability. Risk = danger + probability. Probability is found in two types of Talmudic reasoning about uncertainty.
However, in modern thought, probability goes beyond uncertainty. Thanks to probability theory, nowadays ‘risk’ mixes danger with a dose of randomness. For Judaism, randomness seems to cut against a pure theology of divine power. By the same token, randomness throws a wrench into the theological machinery of free will. Perhaps this explains why, in futile protest to the arbitrary and random, Jewish law (halakhah) does not quite have a traditional Hebrew term that translates into ‘risk’
Luckily, Jews tend to eschew systematic theology. Classical Judaism works more smoothly with archetypes than abstract definitions. So, in our narrative and legal discourses, traditional Judaism does not define ‘risk’ yet it talks about numerous risks. Though it may be theologically contradictory or paradoxical, the Talmudic tradition also allows for fate, chance and the random.
Talmudic writings on risk-taking are expressed through various literary forms, e.g. as principles, rules, and cases/examples. To gain an overview of the various Talmudic approaches to risk-taking, I am trying to organize the material in a chart. This DRAFT chart of Talmudic risks takes into account the type of halakhic norm (e.g., prohibition or advice), the subject’s response to the risk (e.g., prevent or take risks), and the risk characterization (level of danger + probability of harm). The chart shows the breadth of risks and range of rabbinic approaches; it also calls attention to the difficulty in formulating a consistent theory of risk-taking for Jewish law.
I would appreciate getting feedback on this work in progress, but it may contain errors so please read it at your own risk.
 Moshe Koppel analyzes two types of Talmudic reasoning about uncertainty: (1) When the rabbis can count up the possibilities in an uncertain situation, they calculate the odds. The halakhah is then decided with the majority (rov - RDIK). (2) When an uncertainty cannot be counted, I think that the sages reason from ballpark estimates. They then devise an ad hoc probabilistic rule to decide with the majority (rov - RDLK).
“Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening.” (Gertrude Stein)
Sources: [JD Bleich, M Slae, D. Cohen, M Koppel, N Rabinovitch, forthcoming...]