Choosing Life, and Change

By Guest Author

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Rabbinical Council of America, the leading body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, took a bold step last week with the issuance of a legal ruling that categorically bans smoking as a violation of the Torah.

The council’s boldness is not in accepting four decades of mounting medical evidence, but in letting the findings of modern science trump and overturn centuries of settled rabbinic law. In so doing, the members have struck a blow on behalf of the embattled “modern” part of Modern Orthodoxy.

The ban comes in a unanimous decision by the council’s nine-member Va’ad Halacha or religious law committee, which recently reconstituted itself after more than a decade of inactivity. The committee bases its 11-page ruling on the biblical commandment to preserve life and on various talmudic prohibitions against engaging in dangerous, life-threatening activity.

The teshuvah, or responsum, does not break new ground in the scientific or societal debate over smoking, as the authors openly admit. Their goal is not to weigh the medical evidence against smoking and prove its dangers, but rather “to show that given the medical knowledge of today, there is no basis in Halacha to permit smoking.”

Considering all that is known, they write, “our discussion should be short and simple, as numerous passages in the Talmud take it for granted that one may not engage in dangerous or unhealthy activities.” But that would overlook the realities of Orthodox rabbinic culture, in which the rulings of the revered sages of the past frequently hold greater sway than the discoveries of modern society. As it happens, some major luminaries have ruled in favor of permitting smoking, notably Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, whose death in 1986 has not dimmed his reputation as the greatest rabbinic authority of his age. Feinstein, the Rabbinical Council authors note, issued a ruling on Hanukkah in 1964, “within months of the release of the famous Surgeon General’s report,” arguing that while smoking is not “preferable,” it is not “strictly forbidden by Halacha.”

Feinstein’s reasoning was twofold. First, he argued that many people smoke and are unharmed, suggesting that “G-d must be protecting these people” — a claim that is, in traditional terms, tantamount to saying the science is inconclusive. Second, and tougher to dispel, Feinstein noted that many great scholars of the past had smoked, “making it impossible for us to say that such an activity is forbidden.”

The law committee’s response to Feinstein is similarly twofold. In reply to the first argument, about God’s protection, it shows how medical knowledge of the risks of smoking has grown since the first Surgeon General’s report of 1964. It is now known, the committee writes, quoting a 2004 report from the Centers for Disease Control, that tobacco use is “the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.,” responsible for “about 1 of every 5 deaths each year.”

As to Feinstein’s second point, the authors go back to tradition to show that scholars have been divided for years over risky behavior, and specifically over smoking. They tackle and dismiss arguments that addicts are not responsible for their behavior and that rabbis should hesitate before banning popular activity, for fear of being ignored. In the end, they write, “this analysis must lead to the unambiguous conclusion that smoking is clearly and unquestionably forbidden by Halacha.”

It’s clear from their writing that they expect a fight, and not just from smokers and tobacco manufacturers. They’ll be attacked by forces to their right who will ask which side of the great divide they are on.

Orthodoxy prides itself on being a countercultural force in modern society, standing against the tide and marching to its own drummer. At its best, that tendency allows the community to live by its own set of time-tested values, frequently preserving its members from the worst vices of our day. At its worst, it can lead to a close-mindedness in dealing with important and even valuable challenges when they come from outside the cloistered world of Torah.

In reconstituting its religious law committee — and mandating it explicitly to deal with issues like organ transplantation and time-of-death issues — the Rabbinical Council of America has set its face forward. We wish them success.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.