This post was originally published on August 31, 2008. The Jerusalem Post as broken the links to their article, but you can read all of it in PDF form by clicking on the link at the bottom of this post.
I've referred often over the years to Beit Shammai's undemocratic and truly unholy behavior during the long run up to the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 1:4 attacks Beit Shammai's behavior and calls the day Beit Shammai took over the Academy by force and passed 18 gezerot at spear point the blackest day to befall the Jewish people since the making of the Golden Calf.
Today there are a group of rabbis who act like Beit Shammai. They seek to win through deception and deceit what they could never win openly. What follows is a clear example.
A group of haredi rabbis who are closely associated with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv don't like decisions on end of life medical care (and organ transplantation) made by the majority of rabbis, both haredi and National Religious.
So these 'holy men' organize a medical halakha conference to deal with this issue. In the best tradition of Beit Shammai, no moderates are invited. Only Rabbi Elyashiv's acolytes attend.
The conference then declares – as if it were representative of all of Orthodoxy on this issue – a new technology that allows a ventilator to be shut off by automatically by timer, "murder." That the majority of Orthodox (and even haredi) halakhic thought allows ventilators to be manually shut off for "cleaning" these holy rabbis fail to mention.
(During the "cleaning," a physician closely monitors the patient for signs of spontaneous breathing – if none is found, the patient is declared dead. This is done for patients who are declared brain dead.)
The Jerusalem Post – typically – buries news of the undemocratic nature of the conference near the bottom of its report. Its reporter, Matthew Wagner, has good access to haredi leaders. Apparently, to keep that access he paints their disputes in a kind light.
Here, beginning with paragraph 19, is what he reports:
Conspicuously absent from the conference, which took place in Jerusalem's Bayit Vagan neighborhood, were rabbis and religious doctors who support the use of the timer ventilator and had backed the Terminally Ill Patient Law.
Dr. Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, who was a member of the Steinberg Multi-Disciplinary Health Ministry committee that helped prepare the legislation, said many prominent rabbis supported the use of such ventilators. The committee was headed by Prof. Avraham Steinberg, a neurologist and halachic expert.
"Many halachic authorities permit the use of the timer on condition that it is activated before the terminally ill patient is initially connected," Halperin said.
Rabbis Haplerin and Steinberg are the two leading Israeli Orthodox experts on medical halakha.
But the Jerusalem Post is not through with its bizarre editing. Here is paragraph 11:
Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, an author of a definitive book on the laws of Shabbat called Shmirat Shabbat K'hilchata (Observing Shabbat's Laws), told a contingent from the conference who visited his home on Tuesday that use of the "timer ventilator" was "murder," organizers said.
But, buried 14 paragraphs deeper in the story we find this:
The spring issue of Asia, a journal of Jewish medical ethics, features letters from two prominent rabbis supporting the use of the timer ventilator. One of the letters is from Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, former rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The other letter is from the same Neuwirth whom the conference organizers had claimed was adamantly opposed to the use of the timer ventilator.
Even though Wagner notes the contradiction between the letter and the purported visit, he does not confront organizers with the letter or ask Rabbi Neuwirth about it.