Monday, December 30, 2019

The Gorilla Mitzvah

The modern world presents opportunities that have never before existed in history. You have all the world's knowledge at your fingertips. You can easily transport yourself to anywhere in the world. And you can also destroy your own life, and/or that of others, in just seconds, without even having any intent whatsoever to do so.

It's very simple. All you have to do is drive a car, and be distracted momentarily. And it's incredibly easy to be distracted. Right now, the most likely candidate for distraction is the cellphone - whether texting or talking on it.

There are other ways in which a car can be lethal. You could forget your precious child in it. And it would be extremely unscientific to say "That wouldn't happen to me!" It just takes the right kind of distraction to occur at the moment you step out of the car.

Modern science has conclusively demonstrated that lethal distraction can happen to anyone, extremely easily. The Invisible Gorilla, an important work by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, shows that our brains just don't work the way that we think they do. In a famous experiment, a person dressed as a gorilla could walk right through your field of vision, beat his chest at you, and you won't even see him. It just takes the right kind of distraction.

All this doesn't mean that we need to be extra-vigilant. Vigilance doesn't help, because of the inherent limitations of the human brain. The only responsible way to be sure that one does not inadvertently kill someone is to have a system in place to prevent it from happening.

There are numerous teshuvot about the severe, lifelong penance that is required even for cases of entirely accidental murder - but distracted driving is something that is proactively preventable. This is the Torah way. Halacha says, do not rely on yourself to avoid being in an inappropriate situation with a member of the opposite sex; rather, implement hilchot yichud, to safeguard against such a situation arising. Halacha says, don't eat chicken and milk, as a safeguard against eating meat and milk. Judaism requires that we proactively create safeguards to better ensure that we don't make terrible mistakes.

In the case of leaving an infant in the car, there are a number of practical and technological tools that can be implemented. In the case of regular driving, there are apps which disable your phone from being used while you are driving. (I'm currently trying one called Lifesaver.) And if you are still unconvinced, watch this video.

These are not only moral obligations. They are also religious obligations.


  1. This is a very good post which teaches people responsibility. Thank you rabbi for this post.

    And if you’re still unconvinced (readers) there is a saying in the Talmud that says those who kill themselves or others out of neglectance for responsibility (for example, text and drive) lose their share in the World to Come. Unfortunately I do not recall the source but the point is certainly there. Additionally, if anyone knows please feel free to post the source.

  2. Every word of this post is a gem. The last two sentences, however, frighten me.

    “ These are not only moral obligations. They are also religious obligations.” The implication being that for a large segment of people religious obligations outweigh moral ones. That they might choose to pass on adopting proactive safeguards, for example, if there were only a moral imperative but they would be forced to adopt them if it were a religious requirement.

    It should not be thus. Alas, it too often is.

    1. It frightens me too (so to speak) for a different reason: because it shows how easy people can turn their pet projects into religious ones. According to RNS, wearing a seatbelt is now a mitzvah of the Torah, one of the big 6-1-3. As such, one who doesn't wear it is a sinner, and by law, one is permitted to do and say all sorts of nasty things to sinners.

    2. Even if it’s not Jewish law (halacha) (to wear seatbelts,) it’s still a law in the US and other countries. Additionally, I think wearing a seatbelt should be a mitzvah or at least a fence for guarding one’s life. No one should talk down The sinner except for the fact that if someone neglects to wear a seatbelt (when appropriate), they are effectively putting themselves and others’ lives in great danger.

      In any event, there are not 613 mitzvot. The number is a darash and probably is much smaller. The number is derived from a sermon by Rabbi Simlai, third century CE. See Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b.

  3. Halacha says, don't eat chicken and milk, as a safeguard against eating meat and milk.

    There's not a single source from Hazal that says that. There are certain laws that are identified by Hazal as gezeirahs of this type, though far fewer than generally thought. There are also many cases in which the Bavli alone will declare a particular law to be a gezeirah, sometimes to prevent against something that seems completely implausible. Often, an alternative non-gezeirah-based explanation of that same law is found in the Yerushalmi or other Hazalic sources. However, this isn't even one of those cases.

    1. According to the view that chicken cooked with milk is prohibited rabbinically (midivrei sofrim) (Chullin 104a), what other reason could there be?

    2. what other reason could there be?

      I wanted to say something like 'this is your brain on Jewish day school', but this is an important question that reveals a great deal about what is defective about mainstream orthodox approaches to Torah study (Haredi/MO makes no difference).

      First of all, the kasha-terutz methodology has taught people that when you have a question, you take the first answer you find and stick with it until a better answer comes along. In the intervening period you can even use this answer as a premise to pose and solve new questions. However, the pious and prudent course whenever you have a question is to accept you don't have an answer at all until you find one that can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, and even then be circumspect about using it as a premise. In this case, the fact that you can't think of another reason is neither here nor there.

      Secondly, the standard orthodox explanation of d'rabbanans goes something like this:

      In the beginning there were only d'oraitas, everything else was permitted. You could spend Shabbat riding horses, buying and selling, going for a swim, climbing trees etc. and no-one would say boo to a goose. But then, one by one, 'Hazal' [it's never specified who this means] got worried that doing these activities might lead you to violate a d'orayta. For instance, they worried that if you rode a horse, you might snap a branch off a tree, so they banned it. A lot of these gezeirahs appear completely far-fetched and many more would appear irrelevant in the present day, but, well, that's what Judaism is so lump it.

      The historical reality is completely different. Long before we arrive at anything we might reasonably define as 'Hazal' there was already centuries of case-law and legal precedent which together made up the oral Torah. Torah study consisted substantially of becoming familiar with corpus, which was an enormous effort given that most of it was not written down. Actual derivation of laws from pesukim was a rare occurrence, which would only have come up when extraordinary circumstances required.

      At a certain point, however, it was decided that this corpus of material required systematization to become manageable. (This probably was a result of the collapse of Jewish civilization 66-132, but may have started earlier and been accelerated by it). A big part of this was defining laws, as being either lo ta'aseh, sh'vut, midivrei sofrim etc.

      In the case here, it was clear that the tanaim received an unquestioned tradition that all forms of meat were forbidden to be cooked with milk. (Yes, the Bavli says otherwise, but
      see here). However, study of the pesukim led them to classify animal-meat cooked with milk as a lo ta'aseh and fowl cooked with milk as not (wild animals were subject to dispute).

      A more productive model than d'orayta-gezeirah, is to see each mitzvah in terms of a diagram with two concentric circles. Inside the circles are the thousands of different activities that relate to he mitzvah in question. Those that fall in the innermost circle are min haTorah, and those that are in the outer circle are d'rabbanan. This is why you almost never find a hayav-mutar mahloket, but instead 'hayav-patur' or 'patur-mutar' (which if, you think about it, makes no sense if we conceptualize d'rabbanans in terms of gezeirahs).

  4. It's worth emphasizing that you don't need to be looking at your phone to be distracted. Your reaction time even when using a hands-free device is worse than when you're drunk or high.

    A lot of people think there's no difference between a cell phone conversation and a conversation with a passenger, but there are psychological, practical, and evolutionary considerations that come into play to make the former far, far more dangerous.

    All of your phone's functions should be entirely inaccessible to you while driving, not just physical access to its buttons.

    1. You wrote that "A lot of people think there's no difference between a cell phone conversation and a conversation with a passenger," and assert that "the former [is] far, far more dangerous."

      I disagree. Living car-free for the past 7+ years, riding a bicycle for both sport and transport on South Florida roads, I've been rear-ended three times by distracted drivers (while riding in marked bike lanes). The first time, by one carrying on a cellphone conversation using a hands-free unit; the second time, by one conversing with a passenger; and the third time, by one listening to "talk radio".

      They're all different, all "attention grabbers", all equally dangerous... could've been fatal.

    2. Let me preface this with my credentials. I write documentation for a company that does traffic surveillance, and we've recently opened a specialization in illegal cell phone enforcement. I know this field very, very well.

      Your argument is equivalent to saying that if you happen to know one person who died of AIDS and one person who died of choking on a stuffed grape leaf, that grape leaves are as dangerous as AIDS. It's like saying that because only one of my three dead grandparents smoked cigarettes, non-smokers must be twice as likely to die as smokers.

      Can people be distracted by talking to passengers or listening to the radio? Sure. Can they be distracted by coughing or sneezing while they drive? Sure. Can they be distracted by talking on a cell phone? Sure. But each one is a different level of distraction, with a different impact on your level of concentration, adding a different number of seconds to your reaction time - and therefore a different probability that it will cause you to get into an accident. Not to mention different amounts of injury for the person you hit!

      If you want a concrete example: imagine you're driving and somebody cuts you off. Who is more likely to continue talking while you're slamming on the brakes: somebody sitting next to you, or somebody on the other end of a phone line who can't see what's going on?

      Sure, not every fellow passenger will stop talking. And not everyone who talks will be the deciding factor if there's an accident. But you can't claim that if you analyzed a thousand such incidents you'd see no difference.

      And that's before you get into more obscure and wide-ranging effects, such as how the brain assigns levels of importance to different things in its environment. Your brain does a *lot* of work behind the scenes, categorizing everything that happens around you, filtering out what's unimportant and raising things that are important to your attention. A well-known example of this is when you're in a crowded room, and you're not listening to the words of the conversation next to you because you're having your own conversation; until somebody in that conversation says your name and it cuts through your attention like a knife.

      These mechanisms developed over millennia of evolution, and talking to somebody who isn't physically present is not something they know how to handle properly. You have two pieces of knowledge that conflict: you know on an intellectual level that the person you're talking to is far away, but your ears are reporting to your brain that they are communicating at normal speaking volume. So the subconscious mind flags it as an unfamiliar phenomenon that requires more than the usual amount of attention.

      It's much like how a person talking on a cell phone on the bus next to you is far more distracting than two passengers talking to each other, even if the two conversations are at the same volume. Your brain notices a conversation that seems to be missing one of its participants, and flags it as something your consciousness should pay attention to, because it doesn't fit into these millennia-old categories of known phenomena - no matter how familiar with it your conscious mind might be.

    3. Yerushalmi,
      I'm not going to be intimidated by your (or anyone's) credentials, and depending on exactly what your line of work is, it might be fair to say that you're noge'a b'davar. Regardless, what you write makes sense intuitively, but I haven't found it to be true within my personal experience either. As a frequent traveler on public transportation, I don't find cell phone conversations to be any more annoying to hear than personal conversations, and in fact they're usually considerably less annoying. I think they're discouraged or prohibited because they're an easy target. I rarely talk on the phone when driving, but when I do I've found my level of distraction is directly correlated to the volume of the speaker. As long as the speaker is soft enough to blend in with the background, I feel no need to focus on the conversation and find it no more distracting than in-person conversation or talk radio; I often will miss things being said by the other party and that's just fine.

      I'm no self-proclaimed "expert" nor versed in any of the literature, but I've studied statistics and econometrics enough to be very skeptical here. How many of the studies were conducted by wholly disinterested parties? And when there's an accident, one of the first things cops are looking for is if the driver was on his or her cellphone and not so much other distractions so that can certainly skew the statistics.

      I wholeheartedly agree that even hands-free conversation can be very dangerous but the same level is likely true for many other distractions and I'm certainly not convinced about there being a religious obligation here. Every harchaka from aveira comes with costs, and an outright ban on drivers talking on cellphones while driving certainly has costs that need to be taken into account. Society always accepts a certain level of risk in order to be able to live a "normal" life, and the question here is where to draw the line. It is certainly at least lifnim mishurat hadiyn to abstain from phone conversation while driving, but I don't know that it rises to the level of a moral, ethical, or religious obligation either.


    4. I'm not going to be intimidated by your (or anyone's) credentials, and depending on exactly what your line of work is, it might be fair to say that you're noge'a b'davar.

      "This person only thinks it's important because he works in the field!" Well, some people work in a field because they think it's important.

      As long as the speaker is soft enough to blend in with the background, I feel no need to focus on the conversation

      I spent a *lot* of effort in my post explaining the difference between the conscious and the subconscious mind, but you can feel free to ignore that if you like.

      I'm no self-proclaimed "expert" nor versed in any of the literature

      Oh, then just ignore the people who are. I'm sure your opinion is equally valid.

      And when there's an accident, one of the first things cops are looking for is if the driver was on his or her cellphone and not so much other distractions so that can certainly skew the statistics.

      This is not something you'd say if you were "versed in any of the literature". No, it's not true that "one of the first things cops are looking for is if the driver was on his or her cellphone". In fact, the number of cellphone-related accidents is almost certainly massively undercounted.

      You don't even need to look at cell phone statistics themselves (though they are pretty bad) to see that there's a problem. All you need is to look at the paradoxical movements of other numbers: total number of road deaths rising; total number of accidents rising; yet per-accident road deaths dropping, and so on. Sift through these numbers and the danger posed by cellphones rises to your attention, even after the most cursory analysis of statistics that don't even mention cell phones.

      Do I sound angry? Yes, I'm angry. But not, I suspect, for the reason you think. I couldn't care less whether you agree with the work that I do. But it's attitudes like yours that are bringing back measles and polio and refusing to take flu shots and endangering my kids. And that pisses me off.

    5. Yerushalmi: Wholeheartedly agree, except for one thing. You wrote: "But each one is a different level of distraction, with a different impact on your level of concentration, adding a different number of seconds to your reaction time."
      Reaction time is measured in fractions of seconds, not seconds. If seconds have gone by it is probably too late.

    6. You are of course correct - I went back and forth a few times between writing "milliseconds" and "seconds". I settled on "seconds" because fractions of a second can be measured in either unit, and since I was talking to a layman I didn't want them to think, "oh, well, if it's just a few milliseconds, who cares?".

  5. No jab at Charedim?! Your really slacking...

    1. And this is actually a complete repeat of a post some years ago. Well, it is the season of repeats ...

  6. US statistics show that listening to the radio is more lethal.
    Yet the powers that be decided not to prioritize radio (media lobby is too powerful, politically, plus there are benefits, such as keeping driver awake, preventing driver boredom, etc.)

    1. Can you cite these statistics?

      (I can understand how changing radio stations while driving constitutes a distraction, but I was not aware that simply listening to the radio was especially lethal.)

      Also, I didn't realize there was a particularly powerful "radio lobby" (in the this century).

    2. It's not the radio lobby - its Bluetooth. They spent MANY MILLIONS lobbying to get hands-free legislation passed. Naturally they came up with studies and statistics, etc etc to show the politicians while they were enjoying their dinners and junkets, that's how you play the game. Its hard to believe in 2020 that people can still believe what some pre-determined and paid-for concocted "study" says, but what can I tell you, naivete will always be with us.

  7. @Yerushalmi: I have a quick question. To what degree is it believed that in-car conversations are actually inherently safer than cell-phone conversations vs. this explanation: the fact that there is a passenger with a second pair of eyes in the car simply makes the drive overall safer and compensates for the increased distraction due to conversation?

    1. Since my work is adjacent to law enforcement, and it's not illegal to talk to another passenger, I'm not familiar with the research into whether a second pair of eyes helps. But the distraction data is not collected solely by measuring the number of accidents; they put people in simulators and test how long it takes them to react. In these cases, they of course wouldn't have the passenger shout "look out!" because that would skew the results.


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