Smoking Ban Takes Heat
I am not a smoker and have never been one. I inculcated my children in their formative years with my disdain for cigarettes, and they too, as adults, do not smoke. In that regard, I followed the guidance of my father, an old-school MD general practitioner, who never allowed a cigarette, cigar or pipe in our house when my siblings and I were growing up.
Notwithstanding all this, I must express my disappointment in the recent Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) “ban” on smoking as a violation of halachah, as reported by Jewish Action (spring 2007). In an age of “bans” on books, the Internet, TV et cetera, when such “bans” have, at least in some quarters and at various times, been dismissed or otherwise met with derision to the point of being counter-productive, I respectfully submit that the RCA might have characterized its decision differently.
But more to the point, I must respectfully take exception to the substantive conclusion the RCA reached, namely that its “analysis must lead to the unambiguous conclusion that smoking is clearly forbidden by [halachah]….” [emphasis added]. Contrary to the RCA’s opinion, it is not at all clear that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, upon whom the RCA attempts to rely, would support the RCA’s conclusion.
The RCA argues that “given the increased knowledge and awareness of health risks”—from the time of Rav Moshe’s first (lenient) teshuvah in 1964 “written within months of the famous Surgeon General Report”—“it is safe to assume that even Rav Moshe would have agreed that [smoking] is forbidden.” Conspicuously, however, the RCA omits to report or analyze two teshuvot of Rav Moshe from the early 1980s, in which he had the opportunity, but pointedly declined, to prohibit smoking, per se. (See Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, vol. 2, 18 and 76.) Indeed, in his last teshuvah on the subject, addressed to Dr. Fred Rosner in 1981, Rav Moshe concluded that it is not shayach, relevant, to prohibit smoking.
One may reasonably assume that Dr. Rosner, a well-known proponent of prohibiting smoking from a halachic perspective, had sufficiently “educated” Rav Moshe about the by then certainly well-established risks attendant to smoking. Yet, in reliance (in part) on Rambam Hilchot De’ot, perek daled, Rav Moshe concluded that it was not shayach to prohibit smoking, i.e., it would appear that according to Rav Moshe, there are categories of things/activities that Chazal should not, or perhaps cannot, prohibit. Such matters conceivably fall under the rubric of davar tivei (cf., Iggerot Moshe, Even Haezer, vol. 1, 63) or are otherwise informed by an individual’s ability to exercise his own “autonomy” in certain matters dealing with his own body and behavior—a concept not at all foreign to halachah and that is supported by traditional sources even in cases of pikuach nefesh revolving around medical-related life and death decisions. (See, e.g., “Is There Patient Autonomy in Halacha?” by Rabbi Zev Schostak, located at www.medethics.org.il/articles/JME/JMEB1/JMEB1.7.asp). Smoking, according to Rav Moshe, might well fall into that category of personal choice, too. Thus, to maintain, as the RCA does, that Rav Moshe would prohibit smoking today is entirely speculative. Perhaps, therefore, the RCA should supplement or amend its teshuvah by reporting the later teshuvot of Rav Moshe on smoking and then, instead of trying to divine what Rav Moshe would have held today, either objectively distinguish them or simply respectfully decline to follow them in reliance on the other formidable gedolim who outright prohibit smoking.
Of course, no one who smokes should take comfort from my letter. Though Rav Moshe did not declare smoking to be an issur, prohibited, in his responsum to Dr. Rosner, Rav Moshe strongly urged people not to smoke and to ensure that their children not smoke either. Rav Moshe’s 1981 admonition certainly remains shayach today. Regardless of the RCA “ban,” people certainly should act upon Rav Moshe’s strong advice, if not their own common sense, to refrain from smoking.
Silver Spring, Maryland
Congratulations to the RCA for finally taking a stand and issuing a ban against smoking. However, shame on it for taking so long to do this. Smoking has been a proven health risk for many years and countless young students have started smoking because they have seen their teachers and rebbeim smoke and incorrectly assumed that “if it’s okay for them, it’s okay for me.” Imagine how many lives could have been saved had this ban been issued earlier—not just the lives of those young people who would not have started smoking, but also those of the victims of second-hand smoke.
Brooklyn, New York
The RCA Responds
The RCA and its Va’ad Halacha have been gratified by the positive response to our responsum on smoking, issued in June 2006. Numerous rabbis and educators have conveyed to us how useful it has proven to be in responding to the question many young people have long been asking: “If it really is forbidden, how come the rabbis don’t come out and say so?” Indeed, to further strengthen the impact of the responsum, the membership of the RCA passed a resolution at its past national convention intended to facilitate the implementation of the pesak in Jewish communal life.
While the word “ban” and its equivalents are commonly used in some quarters, this is not our way. The Va’ad Halacha issued a detailed responsum explaining that smoking is indeed prohibited in halachah, and thus has no place in our community. In light of the conclusions reached in the responsum, it is our hope that the responsum will become an educational tool in our yeshivot and day schools, as the overwhelming majority of new smokers are teens. The word “ban” was used in the title of an accompanying public statement; if this word was somewhat misleading, the text itself removes any question that this was not a “ban” but a responsum in the classical sense.
The role of the rulings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein seems to have been misunderstood. In no manner is the pesak of the RCA’s Va’ad Halacha directly based upon anything Rav Moshe either said or would have said. Nevertheless, it was necessary to address his 1964 (5724) responsum, as it serves as the fig leaf for many who want to pretend that smoking remains an acceptable activity in the eyes of halachah. In Rav Moshe’s role as the leading posek of the previous generation, it is only natural and proper that his words should carry great weight; but like all rabbinic rulings, they are only as valid as the information they are based on.
Mr. Kasdan points out that our responsum did not quote from Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, vol. 2, where as late as 1981 Rav Moshe still wrote that smoking could only be discouraged but was not forbidden. While we did not quote this piece, it was alluded to in footnote 28, where it was noted that the acceptance of the grave risks of smoking had been a slow process in some rabbinic circles. Even a cursory reading of Rav Moshe’s 1981 responsum reveals this same situation, as he states “and that is because in all of these matters which were singled out it would not be possible to really prohibit them since most are matters that bring pleasure and the overwhelming majority of people are not harmed at all [emphasis added] and there are many who cannot restrain themselves … and smoking is similar to these matters.” This is only one small quote, but on several other occasions in that same responsum Rav Moshe clearly writes that his ruling is predicated on the “fact” that the risks of smoking are quite minimal, affecting only a small minority of smokers. Rav Moshe’s refusal or reluctance to pronounce smoking as prohibited is predicated on the-then common assumption that only a small percentage of smokers would be harmed, a claim that no one would make today.
We should not shy away from reading Rav Moshe’s words correctly and applying the knowledge of today that may not have been available to him then. Today, when we know just how dangerous it is for the overwhelming majority of smokers, the halachic conclusion should be obvious to all—it is certainly clear to us.
Rabbi Asher Bush
Chairman, Va’ad Halacha
Rabbinical Council of America
Unfortunately, the concluding paragraph of “Friday Night Lights” by Bayla Sheva Brenner (summer 2007) was omitted:
As Rabbi Stephen Berger brings his adept kiruv skills to the NCSY Northwest Region, he proudly passes the FNL baton to Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, the current acting Regional Director for the NCSY Long Island Region. And the North Bellmore community counts the days to FNL’s monthly Shabbat visits—the Shabbat that lights up all their Shabbatot. “We join together and sing songs—Shlomo Carlebach songs, NCSY songs, and in between, divrei Torah and stories, laughing and singing,” says Sigal. “We have kids going home telling their parents they want to live differently on Shabbat. We are not only feeding the body; we are feeding the soul. The benefits are immeasurable.”