Under haredi pressure, Chief Rabbinate delays Barzilai bone move
By MATTHEW WAGNER
Under pressure from a group of prominent haredi rabbis, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the chief rabbis asked the Prime Minister's Office this week to postpone the disinterment of Byzantine-era bones at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center.
Movement of the bones is needed for the building of an underground operation room to protect doctors, nurses and patients from Grad rockets fired at Ashkelon by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.
The Chief Rabbinate had already okayed the movement of the bones over a week ago. However, after intervention by a group of highly respected haredi rabbis - Nissim Karelitz and Shmuel Halevi Vozner of Bnei Brak and Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem - the Chief Rabbinate agreed to search for an alternative solution.
"If we can find a solution that is acceptable to all sides why shouldn't we?" a spokesman for Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said on Thursday.
In a meeting on Tuesday evening with Prime Minister's Office director Ra'anan Dinor and Chief Rabbinate director-general Oded Weiner it was agreed that unearthing the bones would be delayed for two weeks to enable the Chief Rabbinate to investigate other options.
Just last week a majority of the Chief Rabbinate's Council ruled, in accordance with Metzger's halachic decision, that saving Jewish lives took precedence over protecting the sanctity of the dead.
In Metzger's 30-page decision, he argued that since there was doubt whether or not the remains were of Jewish origin, and since moving the bones was for the sake of saving Jewish lives, it was permissible.
But what was a halachic no-brainer for Metzger and a cadre of rabbis was seen as a deviation from Jewish tradition and "the uprooting of the Torah" for other rabbis.
"Since the benefit for saving lives will be realized only after a long period of time [construction of the underground operation room will take about two years]... justifying the act [of disinterring bones] is a distortion that leads to the uprooting of the Torah," Karelitz and Vozner wrote in a halachic opinion printed in the haredi daily Yated Ne'eman on Wednesday.
"According to the investigations and data presented to me, there is no room to permit the evacuation of the dead from the hospital in Ashkelon," Elyashiv wrote.
A group of haredi extremists called Atra Kadisha (holy place in Aramaic) was the driving force behind the publication of the halachic opinion in Yated Ne'eman, according to a source in the Chief Rabbinate.
"The men associated with Atra Kadisha are the most extreme zealots of the haredi community in Mea She'arim," a source in the rabbinate said.
"They can single-handedly stop the digging in Ashkelon by gathering together about 200 people and blocking the work with their bodies."
Atra Kadisha's main claim was that disinterring the bones would set a precedent in other instances where there was no real need, the source said.
Waiting for another site survey and more architectural drawings will delay construction by months, if not longer. Every day Ashkelon is without hardened operating rooms and patient wards is another day Ashekelon residents and Israeli soldiers are placed in unnecessary danger.
The idea that pekuakh nefesh (saving of life) is only in halakhic (Jewish legal) play when that life is saved immediately is, I believe, both misguided and dangerous.
If you could save a life next week by breaking Shabbat this week, should you refuse to break Shabbat?
If next week is next year, should the Sabbath be broken?
Rabbis Elyashiv, Karelitz and Wozner seem to view pekuakh nefesh narrowly. Someone's life will be saved next week? Do not break Shabbat now to save him later.
I think this is foolish.
But we aren't even dealing with violating Shabbat, which is a major sin unless it is done to save life. We're talking about reinterring bones, which is permitted for many different reasons and is, in any case, not a major sin.
But, you say, we don't know for sure these hardened rooms will save lives. Ashkelon may never again be attacked with missiles. And, even if it is, who is to say a rocket will hit the hospital or even hurt anyone if it does?
However, we have a halakhic principle: sofek d'orita l'humra, when a doubt concerning observance of a Biblical commandment exists, we rule strictly.
Pekuakh nefesh is a Biblical commandment. It also takes precedence of all other commandments, except three: forbidden sexual relationships, idol worship, and murder.
This means that, when a doubt exists, we act stringently. We do otherwise forbidden actions in order to possibly save life.
In other words, we do not need to know with any type of certainty that our action will save life. We just need to have the potential for life to be saved.
In order to rule stringently about 700 year old bones, Rabbis Elyashiv, Karelitz and Wozner need to get around pekuakh nefesh. They do this by ruling that if the life tto be saved is not there in front of you, or if the actual lifesaving saving will not take place in a very brief window of time, then the laws of pekuakh nefesh do not apply.
The problem is, the laws of pekuakh nefesh do apply.
A city rushing to complete a defensive wall before enemy troops arrive to lay siege to the city violates Shabbat to get the wall built on time, even if enemy troops are expected next year, not next week. If it might be possible to build the wall without breaking Shabbat, unless it was very certain the wall could be built in time without breaking Shabbat, Shabbat must be violated.
So we see time when it comes to pekuakh nefesh, time is situational.