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by Zak Lempert

What are the possible halakhic approaches to an accident involving a self-driving car? Who is at fault, and who is liable to pay for any damages? Could Jewish law even matter when dealing with this? With the recent accident involving an Uber vehicle in Arizona, it might be time to take a closer look.

If decoding this sounds like a challenge to you, then you are in good company. In March 2017, Jewish high school students from around the country gathered in Houston, Texas to present their findings on a hypothetical incident involving self-driving cars, in a program called Moot Beit Din, coordinated by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. The sources that we utilized were primarily drawn from Bava Kamma, a section of the Talmud that focuses on damages, torts, and restitutions. Our analysis focused on categories of dangerous activities that could be applied to the self-driving car.

Although our ancestors did not interact with automobiles, they most certainly dealt with other dangers. In the Mishna, particular attention is given to four types of damage-causing agents. The first is the ox, an animal that can be trained to take certain actions, but is also capable of unpredictable destruction. The pit is an unmoving entity that cannot be trained, but is an inherent danger. The chewer also cannot be trained, but may cause damage in certain scenarios. Finally, the fire is an untamed and unpredictable agent that cannot be controlled once the danger has been unleashed. Our group concluded that the self-driving car is most like the fire, because both have the potential to act in an unpredictable manner, and both must be started to become a danger. Even though the self-driving car can be programmed, once one turns on the ignition, the driver and/or the company that manufactured the car assumes the burden of risk because the vehicle operates automatically. In the Torah, we are specifically reminded of the risks associated with starting a fire, as we are taught in Exodus 22:5, “When a fire is started and spreads… he who started the fire must make restitution.”

I find two key differences in the case we analyzed and the Arizona accident. The accident that took place last week resulted in the actual loss of life. While it is important to use this incident to better understand modern application of Jewish texts, I must point out the very real pain caused by the situation. My prayers go out to the family and community who lost a loved one.

The case that we analyzed had a specific set of facts that resulted in property damage and injury to another party. We concluded that the car responded predictably, and found liability on the part of the driver, who assumed a risk when getting behind the wheel of this car. In Arizona, the vehicle was owned by Uber, and was not operating according to Arizona law by exceeding the speed limit.

We must ask the question: did the “driver” have reasonable time or opportunity to override the system? Preliminary reports indicate that no, they could not have done so given the situation. Thus, the operator cannot be held responsible because of the failure of the automated software and the limited time to respond.

Based on my observations and interpretation of halakhic sources, Uber should be held responsible for this crash. The company incurred the risks involved in the commercial operation of an automated vehicle, and did not take all possible steps to protect their customers.. Since this vehicle was speeding there was substantial risk involved and a significant likelihood someone would be hurt. This showed a disregard for pikuach nefesh, a principle in Jewish law mandating that our actions must be carried with the highest regard for the protection of human life.

Studying halakha challenges us to think critically about our choices and the societies in which we live. While many people are familiar with mainstream Jewish interpretations of mitzvot surrounding kashrut or shabbat, our Jewish texts and traditions are filled with applicable material ripe for interpretation. In a rapidly changing world, self-driving car accidents are only one of the many issues that we must grapple with. Rabbis in the early centuries of Jewish legal interpretation could never have imagined the complexities of modern technology. Yet I would argue that their teachings can be applied to numerous circumstances in our contemporary Jewish experience.

As I reflect on Prizmah’s Moot Beit Din program, I can also clearly see how the skills I developed assist me in my collegiate studies. Jewish sources often present logical puzzles, tasking us as readers to unravel their deeper meaning. This skill is applicable to many parts of my life as a freshman in college, even outside of my classes in Judaic Studies. The ability to critically analyze my sources, question interpretations, and develop a sound line of reasoning are important to many disciplines, and I feel more confident doing so because of my work with halakha.

Zak Lempert is a student at the University of Cincinnati, and a graduate of MERCAZ, a supplementary Conservative Jewish high school in Cincinnati, OH.

Moot Beit Din is a program of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.