The Ox or the Owner? Calculating Accountability

Through the ancient case of the goring ox, this week's Torah reading examines whether people bear responsibility for things that might be related to what they do, but not the direct result of human action. 

At the base of Jewish law is the idea that people should be held accountable for their actions. This seems simple enough at the outset, but it quickly grows very complicated.
So many things happen in the world that may be related to what people do but are not the direct result of human action. Do people bear some responsibility for these events? No responsibility? How can we hold people accountable if they are somewhat removed, if their hands are, so to speak, clean?
This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, begins to give some answers to these questions, some basis for assigning responsibility even for those events that people do not directly cause. It does this by considering a case that was ancient even in the time of the Torah:  the case of the goring ox.
Oxen certainly hold the potential for danger. If you have ever encountered an ox on the street in a place where that is possible — say, India — you learn very quickly that you need to stay far away from its large, sharp horns. However, you also learn that most oxen are placid and peaceful, hardly a threat to people or other animals.
Clearly, there are exceptions, and the Torah considers the case of an ox who has gored a person to death. A person has died, but who is to blame? The ox, or the owner of the ox? The Torah gives two answers:
1. “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished.” (Exodus 21:28) In the ordinary case, blame clearly falls on the ox, not the owner. The ox is punished with stoning, and the owner only receives the implicit penalty of being deprived of the value of the ox.
2. “If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:29) This is a quite different case. The owner had previous knowledge of the threat that the ox poses to people and has not taken action to prevent harm. As a result, blame falls on both the ox and the owner, and the penalty is heavy.
Although we are rarely faced with a case of a goring ox in our time and place, the principle behind the Torah’s rulings is widely applicable, not only in the legal system but also in the moral realm.
When we have no reason to expect that harm could befall our fellow human beings, we are not responsible when they are hurt, even if the incident involves something under our control.
However, things change completely when we have prior knowledge of the threat to others. In that case, if we fail to take action to prevent harm, we are responsible for the consequences.
In modern times, we are awash in information about the world around us. We know so much about the potential for harm that faces vulnerable populations — children and the poor, immigrants and the elderly. The case of the goring ox teaches us that with great knowledge comes great responsibility. We are required to do whatever it takes to prevent harm, to improve and even to save lives. If we do not, we know who is responsible.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]


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