Why Metzitzah B'Peh Must Be Banned, Part 2
Metzitzah b'peh (MBP), the direct oral to genital sucking of the bleeding circumcision wound done by many haredi mohels has sickened, maimed and even killed babies, and it must be banned immediately. But hasidim claim that MBP is a part of the mitzvah of circumcision itself and not an antiquated health measure based on ancient Greek medicine, and they refuse to stop doing it. Here's why they are wrong.
Why Metzitzah B'Peh Must Be Banned, Part 2
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
Metzitzah b'peh (MBP), is the direct oral to genital sucking of the bleeding circumcision wound done by many haredi mohels.
Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists along with the New York City and New York State Health Departments are opposed to the procedure, which doctors have now linked to at least two deaths, one case of severe mental retardation, and other cases of infection with Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV-1).
Once a person, even an infant, gets HSV-1, he carries the virus for life and he can – and surely will – transmit the virus to others.
Again, MBP has sickened, maimed and even killed babies and the only sane response is to ban it immediately.
But hasidim claim that MBP is a part of the mitzvah of circumcision itself and not simply a health measure, and they refuse to stop doing it. Here's why they believe what they believe, and here's why they are wrong.
Here is the source for the need to suction the open circumcision wound:
“We perform all necessary acts for the circumcision on Shabbat [even if they violate Shabbat law]: We circumcise, tear the membrane (peri’ah, in Hebrew), we do metzitzah (suction), and we place a bandage with cumin powder on the wound [to cause clotting and stop the bleeding].” – Mishnah Shabbat 19:2, circa 200 CE.
In the gemara (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 133b) that comments on that mishna, Rav Papa teaches that:
“Any mohel who does not do metzitzah causes a health danger (sakanah in Hebrew) [to the baby], so we remove him from his post [as the community's mohel].”
Normative halakha, Jewish law, understands two important things from this mishna/gemara:
1. Neither the Mishna or the Talmud specifies how metzitzah should be done and they do not specifically mention the mouth.
2. Metzitzah, cumin powder and the bandage are all health measures instituted to speed healing and protect the baby.
3. Metzitzah, cumin powder and the bandage are not part of the mitzvah of circumcision. They are part of separate mitzvot commanding Jews to guard their health and to protect others from accident and injury.
Cumin powder is no longer put on the circumcision wound because better products created by modern medical science exist, and no hasidim are holding protests over that. But they do protest the potential banning of metzitzah b'peh, contending that MBP is more than a health measure. That flies in the face of 1300 years of published halakha. So why are they claiming it?
The earliest mentions we have of MBP being anything other than a health measure come in the 16th century – 1300 years after the codification of the mishna quoted above – and primarily come from kabbalists who saw the act of metzitzah b'peh as a rectification of the sin of Adam HaRishon, the Torah's first human being and an indispensable part of the circumcision ritual itself.
The kabbalah these men studied was primarily based on the Zohar, a 13th century Spanish forgery falsely attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who lived in Israel just before the codification of the Mishna. The Zohar is laced with Aramaic words and grammar of a much later period, and traces of Spanish – a language that did not exist in the 2nd century CE – can be seen, as well.
The forger, a rabbi no less, claimed to have found this previously unknown work of Bar Yochai, and went on to make his living selling copies of it. When asked by a group of rabbis sent to investigate the provenance of the work, the forger's wife freely admitted that her husband wrote it.
(Don't call me a heretic for writing this because it is essentially the position of Rabbi Yaakov Emden and several other 17th century rabbis and it has been confirmed by modern historical research and linguistics, as well. Some other haredi rabbis take the position that some of the Zohar is authentic, but most of the book is made up of material added much latter. Hasidim and the current crop of non-hasidic haredi leadership takes the position that the Zohar is the holiest work next to Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.)
Nevertheless, the book was judged to be holy, and it made its way into the accepted canon of Jewish scholarship. By the 16th century it had begun to openly influence halakha. And when the hasidic movement was founded, it was based on mysticism derived from the Zohar and the kabbalist works that grew from it.
And because some of those works see MBP, metzitzah done specifically with the mouth, b'peh, as a rectification of Adam's sin, many hasidic rebbes – including even Chabad rebbes – adopted the view that MBP had been included in the circumcision ritual for that reason. The health benefits of MBP were only secondary.
This raising of kabbalah over halakha is something that clearly would have confused and even shocked the sages of the Mishna and Talmuds.
So would the additional layer added by Orthodox and haredi rabbis – including many of those same hasidic rebbes – in response to reformers who wanted to modernize Judaism by eliminating redundant prayers, bringing decorum to synagogues that often lacked it, and eliminating the "disgusting and unseemly" metzitzah b'peh.
Metzitzah b'peh suddenly became a halakha given to us by God through Moses on Mount Sinai. This was, at first, simply bluster meant to rally the masses and scare off the reformers, and the rabbis who said it didn't actually mean it. But over time the bluster became for many an established halakhic fact. And that's why Satmar, Bobov, Vizhnitz, Chabad, and other hasidic groups, along with many Hungarian non-hasidic haredim and even some Lithuanian non-hasidic haredim have worked to hard to protect MBP from "attacks" launched by reformers, "anti-Semites," and the "self-hating Jews" at the Health Department and The Jewish Week.
Here's how the Hatam Sofer, a non-hasidic "Hungarian" rabbi who was both the leader of the fight against the early Reform Movement and one of the leading rabbis in Europe, viewed the issue in the first half of the 19th century:
“We only find metzitzah b’peh as a requirement by the kabbalists, who assert that one must mitigate the strict attribute of justice with the mouth and lips. However, we have no dealing with hidden matters if there is at all even the slightest concern of a health hazard…. Therefore, as long as we can draw out the blood from the faraway places, it may be done in any way possible. We should believe the experts regarding which act is as effective as oral suctioning. I will go even further: Even if the Talmud had explicitly stated that one must suction with his mouth [I would still maintain that one may use a sponge], since the act of suctioning is not an integral part of the mitzvah of milah, but is rather merely done to avert danger to the child. To wit, according to the halachah, if one circumcises and does peri’ah but neglects to suction, he has completely fulfilled the mitzvah….”
In other words, if even a small chance exists that metzitzah b'peh is dangerous, metzitzah should be done by another means, and we should rely on experts – doctors and medical scientists – to choose a way to do metzitzah that will work as well as sucking the circumcision wound directly with the mohel's mouth.
Two such ways are commonly used today: a sterile pipette, glass tube, through which the mohel suctions the wound by sucking; and sterile gauze, which when placed on the wound draws blood out of the wound.
Both of them are rejected by hasidim unless there is a very strong suspicion or absolute proof that the baby has a communicable disease (usually given to him in utero by his mother).
In that case, to protect the mohel, a pipette or gauze is used.
What this establishes is that if the danger is clear and present, even hasidim do not do MBP.
So why are they doing it now?
The answer is very sad.
Because of the position of the Maharam Schick (please see part 1), for the danger to clear and present, it can't be based on an estimate or educated guesswork. His reasoning for this is based on his understanding of the medical science of his time, which often consisted of a doctor trying a remedy on patients over a period of years and then writing a brief paper reporting on his findings. Another doctor somewhere else sees similar results and publishes his own paper. Pretty soon, lots of doctors across Europe adopt that remedy as a treatment of first resort.
Those of you familiar with modern, double blind, peer reviewed medical studies and epidemiological studies done over vast geographic areas and large amounts of time with massive amounts of data processed by computers know that these modern studies are not guesswork, and they bear little resemblance to those the Maharam Schick heard about in the 19th century. Our ability to generate computer models and all the other technical advances of modern medical science make the data we have today exponentially more reliable than anyone living in the 19th century ever could have dreamed of, and halakhicly it is absolute proof.
Schick's 19th century position essentially was that the ancient science of the Greeks and Romans that posited that blood had to be drawn from the furthest reaches of the body to the wound in order to prevent infection, and which had been adopted by the sages of the Mishna and Talmud because it was the best medical knowledge of their era, had become frozen in time and was binding on Jews 1300 years after the rabbis who included it in the Mishna died. The only thing that could change that would be if we had absolute proof of its danger. Otherwise, who were we to say that the "guesswork" of our doctors today was being more correct than the words of our ancient sages and the absolute truth of our Torah?
Of course, we have reams of evidence that proves MBP is dangerous, from epidemics of various diseases transmitted by it in the 1800s and early 1900s to modern immunology and disease research. And that should be more than enough to ban MBP even for the Maharam Schick – especially when at least two babies have died from it in the past ten years, another was left mentally retarded, and others were sickened and hospitalized.
Besides their misplaced over-reliance on kabbalah, hasidim have another endearing feature – they will never say their rebbes were wrong. They view their rebbes as intermediaries between God and man, perfect holy men whose every action has divine import. And because their rebbes did MBP, they will do MBP.
When the government tries to get in the way of that, hasidim fight dirty in response. That includes making sure that families of infected babies do not give the name of the mohel who did MBP to the health department or doctors. It also includes making sure no mohels turn themselves in or allow themselves to be fully tested by the Health Department. And that allows hasidim and their fellow travelers to say that there has never been definitive proof these infections came from MBP, because there is not a definitive genetic match between the virus in the babies and thevirus mohels hasidim hide from the Health Department.
This sophistry allows hasidim to keep the position of the Maharam Schick in play and say that because we lack absolute proof, we can't stop MBP.
Agudath Israel of America is complicit in this deadly game, as well, because some of its leaders are hasidic, because much of Israeli non-hasidic haredi leadership has no understanding of disease transmission or modern medical science and therefore thinks Schick's position is still valid, and because all the rest are afraid that Satmar and Edah Charedis will send thugs to beat them up or take other forms of revenge if they don't go along with the charade. And so they do.
I think the only thing that will stop this insanity is for government to ban MBP, and for prosecutors to treat it as a serious crime.
But hasidm vote in blocs and they're still fighting a long dead holy war against Reform and secularism, and they won't change – even if change will save lives.
Politicians like Michael Bloomberg and Andrew Cuomo in the US need to do the right thing, not the politically expedient thing. They need to do what haredim will not do and ban metzitzah b'peh.
Haredim are killing their own children. They may not mean to, but they are. And that must be stopped immediately.