Monday, 7 December 2009

Chanukah is coming and we are running out of oil


A short trip through a fascinating piece of Jewish legal history.


There have been very few great Rabbis have had the power to transform the communities they served.

One of these few greats was Rav Moshe Feinstein, a true giant of twentieth century American Orthodoxy.

Rav Feinstein was asked, on a number of occasions during the 70s and early 80s if Judaism permitted smoking.

And had Rav Moshe Feinstein said no, had he said that smoking was forbidden, tens of thousands of orthodox Jews would have stopped smoking – thousands of lives could have been saved.


Judaism believes in saving lives.

But on five occasions Rav Feinstein, in five separate legal responses to the question – if smoking forbidden, Rav Feinstein refused to deem smoking forbidden.

He said one shouldn’t start, he said one should probably try and stop, but he didn’t give ultimate priority to the legal principle,

Pikuach Nefeseh – saving lives takes almost absolute priority in Jewish law.

He didn’t give ultimate priority to the Mishnah that teaches that a person who saves a single live is considered as if they have saved the entire world.[1]

He didn’t give ultimate priority to the principle cited by Maimonedes that– guf bari vshalem midarchei adonai hu[2] keeping yourself healthy is the Godly ordained way.

He didn’t even give ultimate priority to the Biblical verse vnishmatem meod lnafshotechem[3] - a person should take great care of their self.

I could go on.

I don’t think Judaism permits smoking.


But the question is this.

What did Moshe Feinstein rely upon, what did he give ultimate authority to when he abstained from prohibiting smoking.

There are a couple of things, all, I think, absolutely rejected by, among others Rav David Golinkin, head of the Masorti Vaad Halacha.[4]

But the most interesting is this.


Rav Feinstein relies on the legal principle shomer petaim adonai – God protects the innocent/the simple – it’s a hard word to translate perfectly. It’s actually a Biblical verse, from Psalm 116.

On several occasions in the Talmud a certain course of action is deemed dangerous, and yet the Rabbis decree that this apparent danger be overlooked and when confronted by the accusation that the Rabbis are putting the people in danger they respond - shomer petaim adonai – God protects the simple.


One example, from Yevamot. (72a)

It seems that the people have a sense, presumably some old wives tale – that it’s dangerous to let blood, or even perform a circumcision when there is a South wind blowing.

The Rabbis, from Talmudic times, decree that circumcisions should take place on the eighth day regardless of the wind direction and when confronted by the fear that a South wind may prove somehow dangerous respond - shomer petaim adonai – God protects the simple – don’t worry about the reports of danger.

And the other appearances of the term in the Talmud work similarly.

And this is what Feinstein relies on.

There is a suspicion that smoking is harmful, but don’t worry says Feinstein, especially since so many Rabbis smoked, God will look after those who smoke, shomer petaim adonai. We’ll be OK ignoring the evidence.


It’s a tragic tale, precisely because Feinstein could have saved lives had he relied on more mainstream halachic arguments,


It’s tragic because shomer petaim adonai – is not about putting the Rabbis of the Talmudic period on the other side of established medical and scientific fact, it’s about giving Rabbis the ability to disregard nourishkeit – nonsense.

The issues the Rabbis of the Talmudic period rejected with their appeal to shomer petaim adonai – God protects the simple – are  superstitions such as the effect of the way the wind is blowing on medical procedures. Can you perform an operation on a Friday when the demons are out and about? Etc.


Rav Feinstein, and I say this with sadness, got the issue back to front.

The point is that the Rabbis of the Talmud disregarded the nonsense pseudo-science in favour of mainstream common sense and halachic reasoning.

Feinstein rejects mainstream science, mainstream common sense and mainstram halachic reasoning in favour of some appeal to the Holy Blessed One that will safeguard smokers from lung cancer and the rest of it.

This is a genuine tragedy.

I know giving up smoking is difficult, but sometimes, oftentimes, Judaism asks of us what is difficult.

And failing to ask, because we know it is difficult, failing to ask, based on a legal nonsense, is an affront to yiddishkeit.


But today, I’m not really interested in the issue of smoking.


I’m interested in ecology.

For those of you who have heard me speak on this issue before, I make no excuse for continuing to be interested in this as an issue.

I am quite terrified and I have no idea what to answer my own children when they grow up and ask what on earth I would thinking when I continued to use carbon at levels beyond anything remotely sustainable.

What am I going to say to them - shomer petaim adonai?


There’s a lot of news about these leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia

And I suspect that in their wake are a lot of people sighing and saying, phew, told you it wasn’t serious.

And they are wrong.


I’m interested in the way we treat scientific evidence.

And I’m interested in the way we allow, or refuse to allow scientific evidence to impact upon our life decisions.


I saw recently the documentary on the environment ‘The Age of Stupid’ – it’s not a subtle film.

But there was one idea shared in the film that has stuck with me.

First we saw the % of scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus that human action is causing climate change at a terrifying rate – it is 1% of scientists.

And then we saw the % of lay people who disagree with the scientific consensus – and up comes the number – 60%.


60% of people, who know little or nothing about climate change think there are problems with the scientific consensus agreeing with only 1% of scientists.

What, exactly, are all us ignorant laypeople relying on – I think it’s some version of shomer petaim adonai

Somehow we look at all the scientific evidence and it all looks a little too difficult and so we look away from the common sense, we look away from the halachic demands of baal tashcit – that we shouldn’t needlessly destroy, we look away from the Biblical notion that we are placed in this world lovdah ulshomrah – to work and protect her and we look away from the warning, in the Midrash,[5] that if we  destroy this world there will be no-one to repair it, and we rely instead on some kind of version of shomer petaim adonai


I’ve declined five recent invitations to get on a plane, because I can’t justify flying anymore.

And I’m wandering round my house turning off lightswitches and cycling and recycling and I’m giving this sermon because

I can’t rely on shomer petaim adonai

Because I don’t think any of us should be relying on shomer petaim adonai


I don’t think I am one of the petaim on this issue – I’m not ignorant. I believe we are stripping this world of its resources beyond its ability to adapt.

I don’t think this Biblical verse is about saving us from scientific realities.

And because I don’t think God works that way.


There are two things happening in the coming week.

Firstly there is the Copenhagen Conference on the environment.

And I am desperately hoping that there will be some kind of breakthrough and that the message will begin to seep through, from every level of society that we all need to engage in serious personal change.

And secondly Chanukah is coming.


Chanukah is coming and we are running out of oil.

How pathetic.

And instead of desperately trying to coax maximum use from the small flask of wine we have left here we are, cranking up the flame because we don’t like sitting in the dark, using the flame to heat our patios and siphoning off the oil to power our trips around the world.

shomer petaim adonai – no I don’t think God does, not this time, not on this issue.


OK, that’s the bad news.

The good news.

Some easy ideas.


i)                  Don’t buy disposable consumerist anything for Chanukah.

Certainly don’t buy consumerist junk for any adult. We have enough ties and socks and bottles of perfume and the rest of it.

Look for an sustainable gift – rechargeable batteries, low energy something, go on-line and do some good with your Chanukah gelt – buy an acre of Rainforest with the World Woodland Trust. Protect the oil we have left.


ii)               Call the Green Homes Concierge

They are an organisation, set up with the LDA and the office of the Mayor of London. They’ll come into your home, show you how much fuel you are using and suggest the best ways to cut down, costing everything, even sourcing everything – a report is less than £200.


And turn off the lights of every room you leave

Before the oil runs out.

shomer petaim adonai – I don’t think so,


I prefer this Mishnah

Lo aleacha hamlacha ligmor


Or this wonderful and exceptionally Jewish title of a recently published book.


It’s Never too Little, It’s Never too Late and It’s Never Enough.

We don’t need to be scared, we don’t need to run away and pretend, we just need to bold, brave and willing to change our lives.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Sanhedrin 4:5


[3] Deut 4:15

[4] Golinkin’s treatment of Feinstein’s work, including bibliographic references can be found here - with an English summary here - (volume 4). This part of this paper owes a significant debt to Rav Golinkin’s work.

[5] Kohelet Rabba 1 on 7:13

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