Public Safety in the Torah
We hear a lot these days about sacrificing our most basic personal rights for the sake of public health and the greater good. Even the most essential rights, such as the right to show your face, breathe unencumbered by a mask, leave your home, earn a living, pray with others, go to school, meet loved ones and friends, travel, and so much more, have been sacrificed on the golden altar of public health. Any of these activities might incrementally raise the chance of getting yourself or someone else sick, and must therefore be prohibited indefinitely.
Most recently, the right to refuse being injected with an experimental drug has also been eroded, with the eventual goal of making it untenable for people to continue resisting. The people behind this cynically insist that no one is being "forced", as they continuously tighten the screws in every way possible. Medical autonomy, informed consent, and the right to decide what drugs if any you put in your body have also been sacrificed on the altar of "saving lives".
All this has been thrust on the public by powerful people with conflicts of interest, media mouthpieces, and establishment shills who decided for them as one. They demand our blind trust and unswerving obedience, with no transparency or accountability. Of course, there is no time for that when public health is in jeopardy.
Even God proved Himself before imposing laws on Man, and God can get away with whatever He wants. God's prophets must prove themselves before being trusted, and must adhere to strict standards to maintain that trust. The wealthy and powerful people who wish to replace God consider themselves above such petty inconveniences. We must "follow the experts", period.
Anything can be rationalized in the interests of public safety, and these days it sure is. The day will come when "medical ethicists" declare that we should murder certain people to harvest their organs. After all, if we can sacrifice one life to save many lives – particularly if the first life is not "worthwhile" – it should be done for the greater good.
The only source we can turn to for objective moral truth is the Torah. Let's see what the Torah has to say about public safety.
Of the 613 mitzvos, there is exactly one which obligates people to take a proactive measure to reduce the likelihood of others being harmed in the course of normal life. This is mitzvah #494 in the Rambam's count, to make a fence for one's roof to prevent someone from falling (Devarim 22:8). This is followed by the negative commandment not to place blood in one's house.
Chazal derive from this a prohibition to keep a dangerous dog or a faulty ladder in one's home. The Rambam elaborates that we should build fences around dangerous buildings and pits, and remove things that pose a clear and direct threat to human life. Contemporary examples would include having safe construction sites, maintaining roads and other infrastructure, and clearing minefields. (See Sefer Hamitzvos positive commandment #184, negative commandment #298, Kesubos 41B, Bava Basra 61A.)
Rashi cites a Midrash that provides important insight into the Torah's position on public safety. The Torah refers to the potential victim as "the one who will fall". One who is destined to fall will fall regardless of whether or not the homeowner builds a fence on his roof. The Torah is commanding us to prevent the tragedy from happening in our home.
In essence, the mitzvah is not so much to protect the lives of others, for the Angel of Death will do his job regardless when the time comes, but to protect ourselves from being his assistant! Obviously we are forbidden to actively jeopardize other people's lives, but this does not condone restricting normal human behavior inside or outside their homes. We must take basic protective measures to ensure that a tragic accident – which will happen anyway – will not happen in our domain, and that's it.
Chazal illustrate the sanctity of individual rights in the public domain. It is the responsibility of those who enter public spaces not to actively harm others with reckless behavior. At the same time, they must recognize that others have every right to be there as well, and protect themselves accordingly. If two people are walking in public and unintentionally collide, neither is liable for damages. The responsibility of one not to cause unintentional harm to his fellow is equally balanced by his fellow's responsibility to protect himself from unintentional harm when he leaves his home. If both were running, the same applies.
If one was walking and the other was running, our Sages dispute whether one's right to run in public, which creates an additional threat of danger to others, makes him liable for an accident. The Mishna rules that the runner is still not liable, for the walker should be aware that others have a right to run in public and take precautions. Issi ben Yehuda argues that in this case the runner is liable for doing something out of the ordinary, and the halacha follows this opinion. However, he agrees that if he were running "with permission", for the sake of a mitzvah, then he is not liable, for that is considered acceptable behavior even if it increases the potential risk to others. (See Bava Kama 32A.)
Similarly, if a shopkeeper places a lamp in public and it causes damage, he is liable. Rabbi Yehuda argues that if he places the Chanuka lamp in the street he is not liable, though the halacha does not follow this position. Lighting a fire in the street is not sufficiently normal and justifiable to receive indemnity from unintended harm.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that one is not forbidden to place a lamp outside his store; he is simply liable if it causes unintended harm. The Torah and Chazal did not restrict the right of people to engage in irregular activities in the public domain. They simply did not grant them indemnity in these cases.
The Torah does not obligate people to take extreme, self-harming measures to protect others from unintended harm. One who takes such measures voluntarily is either a saint or a fool, but this is never imposed on people. The damage caused to society by such measures far outweighs any presumed benefits, especially in light of the fact that whoever must fall will fall regardless. The imposition of extreme protective measures on the public will always cause more harm than good, and violates the Torah's teachings on human rights.
Those who claim that people are required to wear masks in public to protect others from the remote chance of getting sick are falsifying the Torah (aside from the dubious science behind their premise).
Those who claim that people are obligated to take a drug – let alone an experimental drug that has already been responsible for many injuries and deaths – to protect others from getting sick are falsifying the Torah.
Those who claim that businesses, shuls, and other places normally open to the public must discriminate against people who do not engage in self-harm to prevent one who will fall from falling are falsifying the Torah.
Those who suggest that one who behaves normally and by some remote chance gets another person sick is liable for damages is turning the Torah completely on its head. If this person is a rabbi, he has forfeited his credibility, irrespective of his knowledge and credentials, and his words are null and void.
Those who claim that anything goes in the name of "public health" and "the greater good" are ignorant of history, and abetting evil.
All the above will have to give a reckoning for every ounce of harm they inflict on individuals and on society.
Those who voluntarily wish to take extreme precautions to avoid the slightest chance of harm may do so, but they are mostly likely exhibiting mental illness or lack of faith. That is their right, but they have no right to infringe on the rights of others to behave normally in the public domain. If their main preoccupation in life is to reduce their presumed chances of catching a virus at the expense of all else, they should stay home. No one needs to accommodate them or indulge their obsession.
The Torah's position on public health and safety is quite clear. Our rights to live normally and behave normally in public are sacrosanct, even in times of elevated concern about a virus. That is the public good.