I snitched on some fellow Jews not long ago. To a government agency yet. It did leave a strange taste, but I think it was the right thing to do.
What prompted my unprecedented role as informant was the sight of an advertisement on the side of a New York City bus. It featured, if that’s the right word, the face of a wizened woman in a sickbed, oxygen tubes protruding from her nose, her eyes seeming to gaze at the angel of death himself. The caption read: “Dying from smoking is rarely quick â€¦ and never painless.”
The ad was strikingly different from the usual bus-ad fare, the touting of consumer goods, entertainment, diversions, and worse. And its tag line appeared not only in English but in Spanish too. Which is what got me thinking about becoming a stool pigeon.
There was a time when smoking was regarded as a harmless pastime – even a healthy one. (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” boasted one 1940s ad.) And even in less distant times, the inhalation of burning tobacco smoke has been seen as an unhealthy habit but not a potentially suicidal one.
These days, though, no one denies that smoking is a major risk factor for an assortment of dire ailments, including heart disease and lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by illegal drug and alcohol abuse, vehicular injuries, suicides, and murders. Combined.
“Smoking,” the CDC notes, “harms nearly every organ of the body” and contributes not only to heart ailments and a broad host of cancers but to strokes and reproductive problems as well.
And yet there are parts of the observant Jewish world that seem impervious to the fact, or at least late to the realization, that smoking not only takes a medically measurable toll on all who indulge in it, but causes many people to die much sooner than they would have had they not come to nurture the bad habit.
There is a well-known responsum from the revered Rav Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, in which the renowned decisor stopped short of forbidding smoking as a matter of clear-cut halacha. But not every inadvisable act, not even every dangerous one, is necessarily forbidden by halacha. What is more, the responsum is 30 years old, dating to a time when dangers of tobacco were suspected but their full gamut and seriousness not yet fully appreciated.
Perhaps more germane, the halachic rationale for not forbidding smoking is a talmudic principle: When it comes to common (hence not necessarily subject to prohibition) but foolish behavior, shomer pesayim HaShem – God protects fools (Psalms 116:6).
And so, to return to my first and likely last act of stoolie-hood, shortly after seeing the bus ad, I approached the New York City agency responsible for it and informed a bureaucrat that the Orthodox Jewish community in, among other places, southern Brooklyn and Williamsburg, harbors a good number of smokers – with a fairly high collective intelligence quotient. Might it be possible, I asked, for buses servicing those areas to sport ads similar to the one I saw and, in order to seize the attention of the local population, with Yiddish translation rather than Spanish?
I don’t know if my suggestion fell into fertile soil or on deaf ears. I’m not even sure if the bus ad campaign is still active; I haven’t seen the wizened lady of late.
But every time I see people – especially yeshiva students, who may soon be married (or may have recently been) and who have their lives ahead of them and are not yet likely nicotine-addicted – sucking on cigarettes, I fantasize the bus of my dreams suddenly materializing and driving slowly by. And seeing the ad on its side, the young men are reminded that with every inhalation of carbon particulates, tar, carbon monoxide, nicotine, formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and DDT, they are not only flirting with, God forbid, prematurely widowing their wives and orphaning their children but are proclaiming themselves for all the world as fools.