What does the Torah say about… Michael Schumacher?

With Rabbi Garry Wayland.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER’S tragic accident, in which he fell off-piste and hit his head on a rock, has once again raised the spectre of high-risk sports.

Investigators have presently ruled out that he was travelling too fast, poor signage and faulty skis. Nevertheless, the risks involved in skiing, especially off-piste, are unfortunately tangible, even for an experienced skier such as Schumacher.

Sports involving an element of risk are part of normal life, and activities such as cycling, boating, as well as playing football and rugby, bring colour to the lives of many despite the fact that injuries, or worse, do occur.

What does the Torah say about risky sports?

The Torah says we have to “be careful and guard your souls”. While this is talking primarily about preserving the spiritual legacy of the Sinaitic Revelation, it is also interpreted as referring to a requirement to look after one’s health. Thus, the Rambam – who was the doctor to the Sultan in Egypt as well as a rabbi – says: “as being healthy and wholesome is one of the ways of God, and it is impossible to understand His ways if one is ill, one should distance oneself from anything harmful, and always act in a healthy manner”.

Similarly, various practices viewed as dangerous were proscribed in the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive 16th Century code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah, 116). So while one may assume these mitzvot and prohibitions preclude activities that involve risk, they are countered by a Talmudic principle that: as people trample on this matter, we apply the verse ‘God guards the innocent’.

The risk engendered in crossing the road or getting on a plane for some may not enter their mind, whereas for others it would cause mild anxiety, but the vast majority accept it as something that is part of life – “life must go on!”

So sports, driving, cycling and so on are all things we do – and this Talmudic principle supports a normal existence despite the inherent risk. However, “something that everyone does”, would only go so far, and so taking risks beyond the comfort zone of people with similar levels of experience and skills would be prohibited. The thrill of life comes from pushing the limits that normally hold us back.

Any growth that is forced, sudden, as a result of stepping beyond boundaries, is dangerous – physically or psychologically – as well as often short-lived, whereas slow, organic natural growth endures.