When speaking or writing of a tragedy, we must be careful to first think of the victims’ families. In the most recent case of the submersible that imploded near the wreck of the Titanic, four families are in deep mourning. A fifth widow lost both a husband and son, Shahzada and Suleman Dawood. To them, we can only offer our condolences and prayers. But to those who willingly risked their lives for a dubious cause, we must ask the questions: “Was it worth it? Was it even permissible?”
Now this last question would seem to be more for Jews than anyone else, since we deal daily with issues of permissibility. We live – and indeed sometimes G-d forbid die – by the law, and for us, this is now a matter of life or death. May a person risk his life for adventure, fun, excitement, acclaim or anything but saving someone else’s life?
First, let’s analyze what happened recently in the deep waters of the North Atlantic. A submersible vessel named the Titan, chartered by the OceanGate Expeditions organization, attempted to descend to the spot where the ill-fated Titanic sank 111 years ago. Although the tragedy, in the words of The New York Times (June 24, 2023, page A18) “stunned the world,” it also “came as no surprise to veteran deep-sea explorers, many of whom had warned that Titan’s novel design was a catastrophe waiting to happen.” Other experts had expressed shock that anyone would willingly enter into this death trap. Eventually, more than a dozen industry leaders, deep-sea explorers themselves, had warned Stockton Rush, the chief executive of OceanGate, of the tremendous potential for catastrophe. Even at this early stage of the investigations, it is clear that the company cut corners, was “risk averse,” and took incredible chances.
In plain words, this unnecessary tragedy was fully avoidable. This is written not to judge or condemn anyone, but the Torah often tells us things “so that people will listen and be afraid [to do the same].” It is interesting to note that in the obituaries for the passengers in the Titan, the words “explorer, adventurer, a place in the Guinness World Records, youngest, oldest and fastest” often recur. The people who died realized that the risks were great, but felt that, to quote the late Mr. Rush, “safety concerns could also be a drag on a swashbuckling career in which risk paid returns…in unforgettable experiences.”
What does the Torah say about all this? Although, as we mentioned, the 613 mitzvos are only for the Jewish people, the Torah teaches truths about life that are universal. I believe that this is one of them: life is precious and therefore suicide is almost (see Tosafos, Kesubos 33b) always forbidden, and one is obligated to put safety and reverence for life above thrills and unnecessary danger. There is an interesting line in the Shulchan Aruch of the Baal Hatanya (Hilchos Nizkei Guf Venefesh 5:4). In discussing the question of whether one may grant permission to someone else to hit them, he rules, “Ain l’adam reshus al gufo klal – man has no jurisdiction over his body at all.” Clearly, this means that we don’t own our bodies and certainly cannot do whatever we want with them. In a very few short few weeks, we will be reciting Selichos, where we will often repeat the refrain, “Haneshomah loch vehaguf sheloch – The soul and the body are both Yours.” This seems to be a reminder during the introductory season to the Yomim Noraim that life is not hefker, a free-for-all.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin (L’ohr Hahalacha, pages 310-335) utilizes this concept extensively to explain many disparate halachos, but one particularly has ramifications for an early source of anti-Semitism. In one of Shakespeare’s more infamous plays, he depicts the Jew Shylock, who is ostensibly a usurer, charging high rates of interest to gentiles. A common canard through the Middle Ages and beyond, the Merchant of Venice is still quoted in anti-Semitic literature, despite mostly failed attempts to defend the “greatest playwright of all” from the charge of prejudice and the most ancient of hatreds.
However, Rav Zevin demonstrates that the entire premise of the Merchant of Venice is fallacious from the start. The storyline is that Shylock writes a document demanding that Antonio, to whom he is lending money at high interest, must pay with a pound of his flesh if he defaults. The rest is history, as people who were already predisposed to hate Jews emerged from the play demanding their own “pound of flesh” from their Jewish neighbors. This contract, proves Rav Zevin, would never have made it past any Jewish court, since it was universally known and held that “man has no jurisdiction over his body at all.” Thus, not only could Shylock not have made such a demand, but he would have been immediately condemned and laughed out of any Jewish court of law. Of course, he would not have imposed such a condition upon a gentile either, since living in a non-Jewish environment, nothing could ever be imposed upon a gentile if, at the very least, it was not allowed by Jewish law.
To return, so speak, to the Titanic, there is always a Jewish connection. Apparently, Stockton Rush’s second wife is a great-great-granddaughter of Isidor and Ida Strauss, two of the wealthiest people aboard the Titanic, who were, of course, famous Jews, later of the family which founded and owned Macy’s in Manhattan. The Titanic itself was notorious for not having enough lifeboats, celebrating merrily to the bitter end, under the delusion that they were indestructible. But, importantly, one of the differences between the original Titanic and the Titan sub is that whereas the passengers a century ago were clueless about the dangers of their voyage, the five who died on the Titan (with the exception of Suleman Dawood, who was under his father’s care) were fully knowledgeable about the risks they were taking.
We must at this point make the distinction, as often does Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in his shiurim to physicians (No. 56, 134, 268, etc.) that risk-taking in medicine is quite common. Doctors, in conjunction with poskim, must evaluate the relative risks and healing potential of several modalities, be they chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or even experimental drugs. However, for Torah Jews, let us be clear that there is never a dispensation to engage in dangerous activities for thrills or even the obtaining of knowledge that will not save lives.
Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, rov of Yerushalayim (Drashos Maharitz, Rosh Hashanah, page 43) adds a poignant interpretation to our prayers for the body as well as the soul during the Yomim Noraim. He explains the words in Haneshomah loch as imploring Hashem, “I know that you will save my soul because it is a holy part of You. But even though I haven’t yet made sure that my body is as worthy as my soul, please preserve it inside of me because I am working to make it as holy and pure as its partner, the neshomah. In the meantime, please save it because it, too, is po’oloch – your handiwork.” Can we imagine, after such a tefillah, throwing away our precious life for a moment of thrill or excitement? What about the tremendous pain and anguish each of these adventurers have caused to their loved ones? I believe that not only does the Torah prohibit such risk-taking for trivial matters, but every human being should think twice before taking any unnecessary chances.
I cannot help but disagree strongly with Stockton Rush, who was quoted as making fun of those who don’t take risks. “If you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed,” he said to a CBS News reporter. “Don’t get into your car. Don’t do anything.” This is sadly a conventional sentiment, but for us, the Torah gives us acceptable reasons and even mandates to do things and go places, but not everywhere and anything. As always, the truth is in the details.
Rav Shimshon Pincus (Nefesh Shimshon, page 69) reminds us that several times a day, we pray for our body to be healthy. The Mechaber explains that every time we attend to our bodily needs, we remember that Hashem gave us a wonderful machine, which works miraculously for us. The Rama adds that the most amazing miracle of all (umafli la’asos) is that body and soul merge to allow us to live, eat and serve Hashem. It seems inconceivable that people who recite Asher Yotzar several times a day would be able to cavalierly throw their lives away for a rush of adrenalin or ephemeral tingling feeling.
If I may suggest, let us use this object lesson in the frailty of life to be extra careful during these summer days when swimming, boating, and engaging in other activities that can be a mitzvah or, G-d forbid, dangerous. Haneshomah loch vehaguf sheloch chusah al amoloch.