The BP Oil Spill, Personal Responsibility and Jewish Law
Fri, 06/18/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

This April, an explosion on a BP drilling rig caused the largest oil spill to have ever hit the Gulf of Mexico, which has led to mass public damage and estimates of around 60,000 barrels continuing to flow out each day. There are ongoing debates over who is to blame for this massive spill and who is accountable for the cleanup: The US government? BP? Halliburton? Transocean? Many fingers have been pointed and responsibility needs to be taken, but amid the cacophony of corporate vs. government clashes, we can also learn personal lessons from this fiasco.

The Jewish concept relating to a case of mass public damage is “harkhakat nezikin” - the requirement that one not partake in any activities that might cause damage to other people or their property. A primary argument that emerges from the halakhic commentators (Shulkhan Arukh 155:33) is whether one is culpable when he or she indirectly causes a single accident (gerama) after following the correct safety procedures in the same way that one who continuously causes direct damage is liable.

It is clear that this legal discourse is pertinent to those responsible for the spill, but these laws are also relevant for each of us, as responsible agents, every day of our lives. Causing damage is endemic to the human condition; whether it is bumping into others on the street, causing pain with our words, or spilling coffee on a rug, we as humans are inevitably agents of damage (mu’adim). We cannot live cautiously enough to ensure that we do not injure others, nor should we try to live in pure isolation as hermits in order to avoid all harm.

However, as agents capable of causing damage, we have an obligation to take responsibility for how we treat our planet, and how we treat each other. Religion, at its worst, can be used to eliminate human agency and responsibility. Texas Governor Rick Perry invoked a morally deficient appeal to religious language last month when he called the Gulf oil spill “an act of G-d.” While we can debate G-d’s presence in the world, we need not debate the issue of human responsibility and culpability.

A primary charge of the Jewish social justice tradition is the demand that we learn both how to limit our damage and how to hold ourselves and others who cause damage accountable. Religious life, lived at its best, shapes a discourse of public responsibility and calls on us to pay close attention to public policy as well as our everyday spills.

Many Americans want to ignore the oil spill issue because it will not cause them any direct damage. At times I myself wonder, can’t we just focus on the positive and ignore media reminders of all these problems? To this point, 20th Century author Henry Miller suggested: “Instead of asking – how much damage will the work in question bring about? Why not ask – how much good? How much joy?” While a compelling optimistic proposal at first glance, this cannot be embraced as a Jewish ethic.

Prior to our question of maximizing the good, we must be concerned with avoiding harm. “Sur mei’rah v’aseh tov” – the Jewish antidote is to turn from evil and then do good. This is what the philosopher W.D. Ross in his “pluralistic deontology” calls a “duty of beneficence” (to help others) and a “duty of non-maleficence” (to avoid harming others). These duties to prevent indirect damage are also present in everyday activities that we might not contextualize as being moral issues.

Might our acts of consumption have the potential to damage others by enabling abusive worker practices? What about the cars we choose to drive and their respective levels of pollution? Emails we send in haste that hurt others’ feelings or reputations? The challenge to avoid direct and indirect damage is immense, as opportunities for inadvertent harm are similarly vast.

Avoiding potential harm is a crucial moral principle, but if damage occurs anyway, human beings have a duty to hold themselves accountable for their actions, because failing to take full personal responsibility can sometimes lead to more damage in unintended areas. For example, the government’s attempt to address the environmental issue now risks deepening the unemployment crisis; calling for a six-month ban on deep-water offshore oil drilling will affect 33 key drilling rigs in the Gulf, risk putting 46,500 workers out of work and lead to the loss of nearly $2 billion in wages. Additionally, there has been a lack of information disclosure and transparency with regards to the extent of the damage and media has not been allowed to access a lot of the spill sites. Experts cannot make assessments if BP is controlling and limiting access. By providing information and transparency, the parties on the ground could begin to enable others to take responsibility. We must demand transparency.

The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that anyone who can protest a wrong in one’s home, one’s city, or in the world and does not do so is held accountable for that wrong as well. Let us take this message to heart and be sure to hold all parties involved with the Gulf Oil Spill accountable, and let this crisis remind us that each of us causes a mini “oil spill” every day, and so we must cultivate the courage to take responsibility for them.

 Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.
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You wrote: "Texas Governor Rick Perry invoked a morally deficient appeal to religious language last month when he called the Gulf oil spill 'an act of G-d.' While we can debate G-d’s presence in the world, we need not debate the issue of human responsibility and culpability." I can't find a transcript of the actual remarks, but from media accounts of the remarks it is quite clear that Perry was saying we should reserve judgment and not rush to politically-driven destructive actions such as an offshore-drilling moratorium until we know what caused the oil spill -- perhaps it was an "act of God," not a "man-caused disaster," to borrow a phrase from another public figure. He does not appear to have said or to believe that if people were responsible they should not be held accountable. I suppose one could disagree with Perry and believe that we *should* rush to judgment, but I'm not sure why one would find his position morally deficient. Additionally, whether you agree with Perry or not, the term "act of God" is not religious language. It is a legal term for events beyond human control like floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Even atheistic actuaries use the term. In sum, Perry's comments were neither "morally deficient" nor an "appeal to religious language."

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