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Behind the Headlines: Clouded by Smoke; Jews Lack Consensus on Tobacco Issues

The Jewish community’s views on tobacco are less clear than the lungs of children before they take their first, secret puff of a cigarette.

While Jewish institutions have almost universally banned smoking on their premises, there are two arenas in which Jewish policy is at times clouded by dissent: philanthropy and Jewish law.

Several recent, highly publicized developments have put the tobacco issue on the international agenda.

Last month, American public health advocates and government agencies reached a proposed $360 billion settlement with tobacco companies, which agreed to unprecedented restrictions on the marketing and sale of cigarettes in exchange for sharp limits on their liability in lawsuits.

The agreement, which has its share of critics, still needs approval from government officials, including Congress.

In Israel, the Health Ministry announced plans to file a $7.9 billion lawsuit in Israeli court against local and foreign tobacco manufacturers.

The Israeli announcement also came after Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, reiterated his view that smoking transgresses Jewish law — a view shared by many, but not all Orthodox Jews.

But the Jewish community’s tensions on the issue are most clearly illumined in the realm of philanthropy.

A dispute has arisen at least twice in recent years over honoring people who are in some way involved in the tobacco business by making them president of an organization.

In the most recent incident, two of the most influential philanthropic Jewish families in New York recently fought it out over the presidency of the UJA- Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

When James Tisch, a member of a wealthy family that has made much of its fortune from the sale of cigarettes, was nominated to become president of the organization, the Everett anti-smoking machine went into high gear.

Henry and Edith Everett, major supporters of many Jewish and non-Jewish causes, sit on the boards of the New York UJA-Federation, the Jewish Community Centers Association and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, among others.

Long active in the anti-smoking movement, they led a visible — and ultimately unsuccessful — effort to prevent Tisch’s election.

Tisch is president of the Loews Corporation, which owns the Lorillard Tobacco Company, manufacturer of Newport, Kent and other popular brands of cigarettes.

Newport was the third most popular brand named by children between 12 and 18 who smoke, according to a survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The Everetts’ campaign was, in many respects, a repeat of their 1990 effort to prevent Lester Pollack, a New York investment banker and Loews Corporation director, from becoming president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, then known as the Jewish Welfare Board.

Pollack, who later became chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has since resigned from the board of Loews.

Citing “morality, ethics and Jewish law against self destruction,” the Everetts wrote to UJA-Federation that “it would be repugnant for a cigarette executive (pusher) to be cast as the chairman and role model of a Jewish federation.”

Tisch won the election anyway, and at the time, the federation received just a handful of phone calls from unhappy donors, according to Gail Hyman, UJA- Federation spokeswoman.

It is not “our place or any other charitable institution’s place to decide who can or cannot become involved philanthropically,” Hyman said.

“What about people who have made their money in industries which spew pollutants into the air everyday?” she said. “Where do you draw the line?”

Tisch did not return several phone messages seeking comment.

When shifting from the realm of philanthropy to religion, the arguments grow even more complex and at times, even contradictory.

No one actually endorses smoking, but some Orthodox interpreters of Jewish law say that it cannot be prohibited.

Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements cite biblical and rabbinic injunctions against injuring oneself and others — through second-hand smoke – – to back their positions deeming smoking contrary to Jewish law.

“Smoking so manifestly contradicts the commandment to guard your life that it’s a sin,” Leonard Fein, head of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action, said in a voice roughened by decades of inhaling cigarette smoke.

“That makes me a sinner,” he admitted, adding that quitting for good is “very actively on my agenda now.”

Although the Reconstructionist movement hasn’t issued a formal position, its rabbinical college is in the process of ratifying a “responsible investments” policy that would bar it from directly owning tobacco company stocks, according to David Teutsch, the seminary’s president.

Patterns of smoking in the Jewish community have not been formally studied, as they have among African-Americans and other ethnic minorities.

Rates are closely linked to educational achievement. Since Jews are among the most highly educated of American populations, there would presumably be a low level of tobacco addiction, said sources at Jewish organizations and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Among Jews, as among white Americans in general, smoking has become less prevalent than it was in years past.

Yet it remains noticeably popular in some segments of the Orthodox community – – both in the United States and Israel, said Orthodox sources.

“Throw a stone outside a yeshiva and you’ll hit a smoker,” said one employee of the Orthodox Union.

At the same time, one of the first things Dr. Mandell Ganchrow did when he became O.U. president in 1995 was to ban smoking in its offices.

When it comes to smoking, views among Orthodox interpreters of Jewish law, whose opinions on everything from kashrut to sex govern the lives of their followers, have been far from uniform.

While some high-profile Orthodox rabbis have prohibited smoking, other halachic decisors say that they cannot.

Tel Aviv’s chief Sephardic rabbi, David Halevy, has gone so far as to say that even offering a cigarette to another person is forbidden by Jewish law.

In contrast, one of the most influential contemporary Orthodox rabbis was unable to deem smoking a sin.

The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote in 1971 that while he opposed smoking, he could not ban it outright because “the chance of an individual becoming sick from smoking is slim and the chance of lung cancer is even slimmer.”

Though more is known today about the dangers of smoking, Feinstein’s opinion is still widely cited to justify the right of people to smoke.

Rabbi J. David Bleich, an interpreter of Jewish law and professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, said that he cannot deem smoking a transgression of Jewish law because he has not yet seen scientific evidence that smokers run a greater than 50 percent risk of dying from tobacco-related disease.

“Not everything foolish is forbidden” by Jewish law, said Bleich, who also relies on the halachic principal that “God protects fools,” which is understood to mean that people who smoke because they can’t help themselves or don’t know better are not considered sinners.

Yet even in circles most resistant to change, there has been progress.

At a fervently Orthodox yeshiva in Passaic, N.J., no student — regardless of how brilliant a potential Talmudist he may be — is admitted if he smokes.

When Joseph Ginsberg, a New York Orthodox entrepreneur, studied at Jerusalem’s Mir yeshiva in the 1970s, the students would flick the ashes from their cigarettes on to the floor of the study hall.

“By the end of the afternoon it was pretty disgusting” on that floor, said Ginsberg, a smoker himself.

When one of the few non-smokers in the yeshiva bought ashtrays for the study hall, the yeshiva’s head demanded that they be removed, saying, “In the original Mir [yeshiva] in Poland we didn’t have ashtrays, and we’re not going to have them here,” he recalled.

Today, Mir’s study hall, like those in other Orthodox yeshivot, is smoke-free.

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