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!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • 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.