"…In desperation, my friend tried a different tactic. He proposed to his opponents that he and they go to the Gadol B'Torah [top haredi rabbi] of their choice, that they both present their arguments, and that they both agree to go by whatever he says. Personally, I thought that this was very foolhardy. Any Gadol B'Torah remotely recognized as such by his opponents would probably insist on metzitza b'peh! But it was irrelevant. One of his opponents stood up, and announced:'"Even if Moshe Rabeinu himself were to come and rule that we shouldn't do it, we would not listen to him!'"
Rabbi Natan Slifkin writes about a friend who is both a doctor and a mohel (ritual circumciser) in an unnamed country. This doctor-mohel is, Slifkin says, strongly against metzitza b'peh (MBP; the direct mouth-to-bleeding-penis sucking done by mostly haredi mohels after cutting off the baby’s foreskin).
MBP is dangerous. It can maim and even kill babies by transmitting various illnesses, including STDs. Most currently, Herpes Simplex 1 (HSV-1) has caused the most damage, but in the past syphilis was likely the leading illness transmitted through MBP. As Rabbi DR. Shlomo Sprecher showed in his Hakirah journal article almost a decade ago, syphilis and other illness transmitted through MBP caused waves of deaths of Jewish babies throughout Europe. But when local rabbis allowed mohels to do circumcisions without doing MBP, the death rates immediately dropped to near nothing. But even though examples of this exist in 19th Century rabbinic literature, today’s haredim continue to insist on doing MBP.
Slifkin’s friend is, Slifkin says, a lone voice against MBP in his country. At a conference of mohelim there, the friend tried to explain MBP’s dangers to fellow mohels and warn that there is a possibility that the country will ban the entire process of brit milah (religious circumcision) if the practice of MBP is exposed in the media there.
The other mohels refused to listen, denied the clear medical science and the historical facts, and insisted that, despite copious halakhic and historical evidence to the contrary, MBP is part of the mitzvah of circumcision itself and therefore cannot be stopped.
Slifkin picks up the story from there:
…In desperation, my friend tried a different tactic. He proposed to his opponents that he and they go to the Gadol B'Torah [top haredi rabbi] of their choice, that they both present their arguments, and that they both agree to go by whatever he says.
Personally, I thought that this was very foolhardy. Any Gadol B'Torah remotely recognized as such by his opponents would probably insist on metzitza b'peh! But it was irrelevant. One of his opponents stood up, and announced: "Even if Moshe Rabeinu himself were to come and rule that we shouldn't do it, we would not listen to him!"
Wow, what a response! The formulation is especially interesting in light of the fact that whereas the opponents to metziza b'peh argue that it is not part of the Talmudic requirement, its proponents argue that it is halachah l'Moshe miSinai. You'd think, therefore, that Moshe Rabeinu could therefore have something to say about the matter!
But in fact, this response is spot on. The hypothetical construct of Moshe Rabeinu coming refers to a scenario of there being absolutely certainty that there is no halachic reason to do metzitza b'peh. But as I wrote in my post "Suckers for Orthodoxy," the reasons for insisting on metzitza b'peh have nothing to do with halachah. Rather, it is due to meta-halachic considerations. These are rooted in Chasam Sofer's approach that when there is any kind of threat to Judaism from the outside, one should fictitiously elevate the importance of practices.
Thus, since there is opposition to metzitza b'peh from external sources, such as non-Jews or Modern Orthodox Jews (it's not clear which is more dangerous in their eyes - my friend was called "a Reformer"!), one must ipso facto insist on it being non-negotiable. This non-negotiability can be dressed up in whatever way suits the needs at hand - call it mesorah, call it kabbalah, call it halacha l'Moshe Sinai. It's a meta-halachic social strategy, not a halachic position.…
What Slifkin is talking about is rabbis lying for the sake of the greater communal 'good' – a rabbinic behavior with a long and decidedly checkered history.
Here's how it works: A force from the outside – modernity, a non-Jewish government, the early Reform Movement – wants a custom changed or dropped entirely. This could be dropping Aramaic translations, still found in all Orthodox and haredi prayer books, of ancient Hebrew prayers, translations that came into use when many Jews spoke Aramaic as their first language. Or it could be stopping MBP because the ancient medical theory it is based on has long since been proved false, and because it is not part of the mitzvah of circumcision anyway (but is, as the mishna clearly indicates, a health measure), and because it maims and kills babies.
When this outside force, whatever it is, enters into the picture, rabbis who believe that it is perfectly fine to lie or exaggerate for the greater public good do things like elevate MBP from an ancient discredited and dangerous health measure to being an integral part of the mitzvah of circumcision itself. That's why you have so many haredi rabbis insisting MBP cannot be stopped – and that's why babies are sickened, maimed and killed. (Professor Marc B. Shapiro discusses this process in a different context in his new book, Changing The Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History.)In other words, rabbinic lies have real consequences, and when those lies are told about things like MBP, those consequences can be sickened, maimed and dead babies.So does this mean the best approach to the MBP problem is to leave haredim alone, wait a bit, and let them move away from doing MBP of their own accord?No.Why?Because that was essentially what was done for the 60 years preceding New York City's first attempt to deal with problem in 2005, and during those 60 years, all hasidic groups in the city and some non-hasidic haredim, as well, kept doing MBP, despite its known history. Indeed, it could easily take centuries, if ever, for haredim to stop, and babies are unnecessarily suffering and dying right now.That's why the city (and New York State and New Jersey, etc.) should completely ban MBP immediately and make violating the ban a criminal offense.What haredim do after that is their own choice. They can break the law or uphold it. But if they choose to break it, they should do so with the knowledge that if they're caught they could spend the next few years (or even more) in state prison.