Sucking the Life out of God’s Law: A response to a blog post, “Metzitzah and the Halachic Process”

The author of this thoughtful, candid, and intelligent paper, “Metzitzah and the Halachic Process” by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz [posted at Cross-Currents, October 19th, 2012], reflects the world view of a Haredi rabbi with an open mind, a yeshiva trained, sincerely committed rabbi with an eye and ear trained upon the reality of the contemporary Jewish street, both Orthodox and not. He thinks for himself with a Torah inspired passion.

Nevertheless, the contours of his thought are not congruent with the mind, method, and mission that animates the modern Orthodox position:

The Metzitzah controversy [does Jewish law require or merely authorize using oral flesh to flesh suction to clean the circumcision wound – Editor] is nothing new.

In the 1800’s, in Germany, the elements of Reform sought to ban circumcision entirely, attacking the “barbaric” practice of Metzitzah b’peh (MBP), where a Mohel would suck the blood away from the circumcision site.

A little earlier history is in order. The Talmud requires that after a Bris is performed, the blood must be suctioned away from the wound. The reason given is for the safety of the baby. Presumably, the purpose of Metzitzah is to cleanse the wound area of any germs and prevent infection.

A trained mohel, R. Seplowitz is aware of the problem. Is this suction an instrumental requirement, which is done for the well-being of the neonate, or is it a time honored and therefore obligatory tradition that must be maintained? Indeed, Rabbi Samuel Kamenetzky, whose views will be defended by Rabbi Seplowitz because he is a great man, or godol, a leading ultra- Orthodox or Haredi rabbi, in “Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky Statement On Metzitzah B’Peh at the Matzav Network, April 1, 2012 8:22 AM, he argues that…

The practice [oral flesh to flesh suction at the circumcision wound site] is indeed time honored and is followed by the majority of the Orthodox Jewish community today around the world, as it has been for thousands of years.”

Rabbi Kamenetzky gives three arguments for maintaining the oral suction practice as a religious rite:

  1. it is honored or sanctified by time usage
  2. it is followed/practiced by the majority of Orthodox Jews today
  3. the practice, being old, is implicitly proper.

What R. Kamenetzky does not say is enlightening. He does not say the act/rite is a commandment; he only affirms the rite/act enjoys the inertia of incumbency. In official religion Orthodoxy, only commandments – not folkways – command compliance and only commandments confer sanctity. The practice may be observed – out of pressure – by ultra-Orthodox Jews today. But Orthodox Judaism is not what Jews just happen to do; it is about what Jews ought to do. We can and do get Judaism wrong. See Leviticus 4:13. Just forty days after getting a Torah that outlawed idols, ancient Israel was praying to and dancing around a golden calf. Doing an act/rite for a long time does not make the right rite; it makes the rite into a habit.

To my knowledge, it has not been proven that the practice leads to contraction of illness. The halacha is extremely sensitive to health concerns, and it is wrong to insinuate that Jews, who are very particular in the care of their children, would be engaging for thousands of years in a practice that is inherently dangerous.”

The learned rabbi is not a learned medical doctor. Indeed, he heads the venerable Philadelphia Yeshiva, that according to its graduates, does not endorse secular, academic education because it takes away time from Torah and because the probing academic environment conditions its students to critical, or judgment making thinking, which is subversive to faith in God and in the infallibility of the gedolim/great rabbis. R. Kamenetzky’s claim is not based upon empirical evidence; it is based on a particular view of Masoreh/Tradition. Since Jews are doing an act, since our kind a.k.a. the right [some would say very right] kind of Jews are doing the act, the act/rite cannot be wrong. Note well that for R. Kamenetzky, the locus of religious right is found in the habits of the community and not in the right reading of the revealed canon.

We have a sacred responsibility to protect our children from danger and that responsibility is paramount. However, in the absence of an inherent danger in performing mitzvos or following our traditions, we must follow them. In my view, there has been no demonstration of an inherent danger associated with metzitzah b’peh.”

This exquisite statement requires unpackaging. R. Kamenestky first affirms that his version of Orthodoxy protects children from danger. However, in the article “Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse” [by Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera, New York Times, May 9, 2012], it is reported that reporting sexual abuse of children to the secular authorities seems to more objectionable than the abuse itself. Unstated and unaddressed is HM 425:1, gloss of Rabbi Moses Isserles, who requires telling authorities about sexual abuse. It is a fact of post-Emancipation Jewish life; when Jewish and secular law converge with common sense, we do well to obey that law. Jewry is led by law and not rabbis with agenda.

The statement, “I don’t think there is a response to them,” referred specifically to those who allegedly said that it would be invalid to use a tube where there are demonstrable health issues present regarding either the mohel or the child.

If the oral suction is a commandment clear and simple, we have to obey God and the conversation ends. But R. Kamenetzky’s claim is that we have to preserve our “traditions.” If by “tradition” he means the law of the Talmud, he would be right. But if he means that we do what our ancestors did, which included building a golden calf, and the prophet Jeremiah did not approve, as per Lamentations 5:7, R. Kamenetzky would, heaven forfend, sound more Reconstructionist than Orthodox.

R. Kamenetzky contends that the danger to the neonate that oral suction presents has not to his satisfaction been demonstrated. I wonder if he would ever opt for science over the “old time religion” that is “blowing in the wind,” that is “good enough for him.”

Jews have made tremendous sacrifices over the millennia to properly observe our religious obligations and traditions. It would be a shame to return to the days when parents and circumcisers feared performing the hallowed bris, which enters every Jewish male into a covenant with G-d.”

We are obliged to observe our obligations, a.k.a. commandments. God did not command us to keep traditions that are folkways. The modern Orthodox R. Joseph Soloveitchik both rightly and precisely did not recite the Hallel blessing on the new moon because the recital is a custom/tradition and not a law. Commandments and not customs generate commandment blessings according to documentary official religion Orthodoxy. It seems to me that when there is a conflict between a folkway as opposed to a legal tradition and medical science calling an act a danger, medicine wins according to Torah as opposed to Reconstructionist law. See Deuteronomy 4:15 and bBerachot 32b.

We now turn to R. Seplowitz’s position:

It is easy to understand the claim that using the Mohel’s mouth to clean the wound is counterproductive. Some children were becoming ill in the 1800’s and Metzitzah was being blamed. Due to the controversy over Metzitzah b’Peh, many of the Sages of that time permitted the use of a tube to suction the blood.

This innovation was controversial, but many of the greatest authorities of that time and more recent times accepted it.

The Chofetz Chaim quotes the opinion of the Yad Eliezer, who permitted blood to be pressed out of the wound with an absorbent cloth, such as a gauze pad. (Biur Halacha 331:1) This opinion has also been attributed to the Chasam Sofer. The Chazon Ish opposed that practice, preferring the use of a tube, which he considered to be the Halachic equivalent of MBP. (Told to me by Rav Eliyahu Glucksman, ztz”l, Dayan of K’hal Adas Yeshurun (Breuer’s), a student of the Chazon Ish, whose son was circumcised on the Chazon Ish’s lap, with the Mohel using a tube.) Rav Moshe Feinstein considered the tube acceptable. My colleagues and I have performed Brisses, using a Metzitzah tube, in the presence of many contemporary Halachic authorities, with their acceptance, and sometimes encouragement. The Rabbinical Council of America has encouraged its members to follow the rulings of those authorities who permit the use of the tube.

Over the years, my use of a tube has occasionally put me at odds with parents who had requested my services. When they have insisted upon actual MBP with direct oral suction, I have suggested that the father do it. Sometimes that has happened, and sometimes they have opted to use a different Mohel.”

However, such cases represent the exception, rather than the rule. Most of my Bris clientele are Modern Orthodox or non-orthodox. Both of those groups are very happy to utilize the services of a Mohel who uses sterile instruments and gloves, and who doesn’t do MBP. As well, most ‘Yeshiva’ families who ask me to be their child’s Mohel accept my policy of doing Metzitzah with a tube.”

R. Seplowitz’s position in practice contrasts with R. Kamenetzky’s and comports well with modern Orthodox sensibilities. He cites the many authorities who allow and endorse changes in usage. Furthermore, these authorities do not see “tradition” in the same way that R. Kamenetzky does.

My use of a sterile tube is not a Halachic compromise. It is the tradition that I have received from my teachers, and it is acceptable to the Poskim — Halachic authorities to whom I turn for guidance. So for me, it is a non-issue. The use of the tube is 100% acceptable.”

This message seems to contradict R. Kamenetzky, who affirms ancient practice, appeals to “tradition,” and who makes no mention of the great sages who do not require flesh to flesh oral suction. However, R. Seplowitz is not arriving at a position because of his own research; he has a tradition from gedolim that what he does is proper. It is not the Tradition of text, it is the opinion of revered men that is central to his Judaism. Note well that R. Seplowitz does not explain the reasoning of the great men; it is their person, their standing, their reputation and their charisma that is authority laden. R. Seplowitz adopts the modernist view because there are ultra-Orthodox great rabbis who allow him that option; were they not to allow the option, R. R. Seplowitz would not and could not take the position that he does. He is not prepared to say that the ultra-Orthodox position is wrong.

R. Seplowitz’s rhetorical questions are indeed in order:

So why have I not joined the call for the abolition of Metzitzah b’peh? Why do I not congratulate the New York City Health Department for getting involved in Bris Milah? Why have I not contacted the non-Jewish and non-orthodox press to express my opposition to MBP? Why do I applaud the RCA and Agudath Israel in their opposition to the actions of the NYC Health department?

The reason is simple. Major Poskim support Metzitzah b’peh, and that reality is not going away.”

“Major Poskim” – ultra-Orthodox decisors all – are the source of Torah authority and they alone determine what the canon means and the applied parameters of pious propriety. If there is a disagreement among the “major poskim,” as there is here in the case of oral suction, then a Jew has a right to pick his godol, and follow whom he/she chooses. Absent from this discussion is what the norms to be applied actually say and what those norms really require. Being a “major decisor” makes one’s opinion by definition a valid and viable option. He writes:

Consider the following:

  • Much has been written about MBP and herpes. Some medical experts, such as Dr. Daniel Berman, writing in the journal Dialogue, have disputed the findings, and claim that the studies have been inconclusive. (Full disclosure: I am not a doctor. I make no claim as to the accuracy of either side of this dispute.).”

Two issues need to be raised here. First, if R. Seplowitz lacks the expertise to express an opinion, then he may say nothing at all. If some doctors claim that oral suction presents a danger and others do not, then mYoma 8:5-7, that to reference R. Kamenetzky’s words, “halacha is extremely sensitive to health concerns and it is wrong to insinuate that Jews, who are very particular in the care of their children, would be engaging for thousands of years in a practice that is inherently dangerous,” applies. Health comes first and trumps traditions that are not really laws.

  • In 1989 a proclamation appeared in various Orthodox publications in support of MBP [metzitsa ba-peh, oral suction]. The proclamation was signed by many of the most respected authorities in the Yeshiva and Chassidic worlds. (Of course, the issue back then was HIV, not herpes. One can only speculate as to whether those authorities, many of whom are no longer living, would sign it today. I suspect that most of them would.”

Speculation aside, R. Seplowitz defers to great rabbis whose stature insures the validity of their views, which are not subject to critical review. There is zero conversation regarding hermeneutic, the cogency of the claim, or what the canonical documents actually mean. If Orthodox lay people are not experts, how do they now know how to respect experts whose expertise is beyond their ability to assess?

  • A few years ago, I attended a speech where a Mohel and Halachic authority who is well respected by the Yeshiva and Modern Orthodox communities stated that he had informed the NYC Health Department that if they ban MBP, he will give them the address and time when he is doing a Bris, ‘so you can come and arrest me.’”

Again, being respected by community’s lacking the expertise requisite to rendering a judgment is a matter of marketing and not halakhah.” The fact that one has a good reputation may mean that one has expertise and it may mean that the person presents her/himself adroitly in popular religion settings.

  • The Chassidic world, by and large, rejected the original introduction of the Metzitzah tube over a century ago. They still reject it today. Whether you or I agree with that opinion is irrelevant; that is their position.”

The Hassidic “world” claps and dances on the Sabbath and festivals. [bBetsa 30a] Being Hassidic does not make one Orthodox unless Orthodoxy stopped being about Law and covenant and more about folkway and franchise. Being Hassidic is being presented as ipso facto a legitimate source of authority. Their norms may not be challenged, their authority may not be questioned, their practices are not subject to review. Normally, I would not like civil authorities to intervene in religious matters in America, the land of the free and the land of the fee. But in this case, lives are at stake and trump the “Reconstructionist” view of Orthodox “tradition,” that Judaism is what Jews do and not what its sacred documents demand.

For R. Seplowitz,

A word about ‘changes’ in Jewish Law. Your average rabbi can’t just wake up one morning and decide to modify religious practice. Questions of this nature must be ruled upon by a Poseik – an expert in all facets of Talmud and Halachah. He must be a very learned person – recognized by his teachers and his contemporaries as qualified to rule on such complex matters. He must be able to insure that his ruling will be consistent with Halachic standards and values. He must carefully weigh every nuance against the backdrop of Jewish Tradition, going all the way back to Sinai. (Don’t try this at home, folks.’)”

In my view, R. Seplowitz is in error. I do not believe that “heresy” is the default position for mistaken theology, and I remain convinced of his honesty, sincerity, and integrity. I just disagree with his views profoundly:

  • Laws of the Talmud require a Sanhedrin to change. As long as the proposed change does not violate Talmudic law, the change is legitimate. And if the proposed change violates Jewish law, like dancing and clapping on holy days and forbidding the required conscription of men and women on holy days, the change is not legitimate.
  • The claim that a major poseq needs to authorize ‘changes’ is therefore not correct. All that the rabbi needs to do is demonstrate that no law is being violated, like women’s prayer groups that are neither minyanim or pretend to be minyanim. R. Seplowitz merely makes this claim; he does not demonstrate its rightness on the basis of the literary sacred canon. But for R. Seplowitz, the human canons who are gedolim are authorized to change Jewish law. No one I know has explained how Tosafot to bBetsa 30a, s.v. tenan is authorized to claim that the Talmudic restriction does not apply in his time. If I did not know better, it would seem that Tosafot seem to sound like a Conservative rabbi, who today tends not to be very “conservative.”
  • The claim that the changer of Jewish law “be recognized by his teachers and his contemporaries as qualified to rule on such complex matters,” is likewise unfounded. If granted the Yoreh Yoreh ordination, the ordaining rabbi is either vetting the rabbinic candidate to be competent or the ordaining rabbi is a liar. The ordained Orthodox rabbi should be trained to render reasoned and rational readings and rulings regarding Jewish law. As stated above, as long as the suggested ruling does not violate Oral Torah statute, the reading is valid. One could argue that the theoretically permissive is legally valid while being unwise.
  • Halakhic “standards” are recorded in the Talmud. Post-Talmudic standards now bind locally and not universally. I do not know what a halakhic value is if it is something other than a public, recorded Oral Torah legal norm. If I am told that drafting women in the Israeli army violates the halakhic value called tsenius, or “modesty,” then we are challenging the Oral Torah mandate that requires such a draft as immodest. After all, if the Oral Torah requires such conscription, just perhaps the Torah’s view of modesty and the religion of the Orthodox street’s version of modesty are incongruent.

Consider the following plea (R. Seplowitz):

It is well and good that many of us follow the rulings of those authorities who permit the use of the tube. But let us not forget that there are other Poskim who insist that only direct contact will suffice. It is easy for me to say that I have a policy not to do MBP. But do I have a right to tell someone who has a tradition from his teachers to only do MBP that he must follow the rulings of MY Poskim?”

According to Maimonides, “tradition” is passed from a vetted and vetting Great Sanhedrin and not from a teacher to a student. What makes the teacher right? Who checks the checker? For R. Seplowitz, the godol cannot be wrong. For Leviticus 4:13, according to God, everyone might be wrong; the benchmark is the text of the Talmud and not the ghosts of gedolim past.

According to R. Seplowitz, “there is a Halachic process. Poskim take into account the original sources of Laws and Customs. They also take into account the facts on the ground. These factors led many 19th Century Poskim to accept an innovation; similar factors have led many contemporary Poskim to the same conclusion.”

This is how Judaism appears on the Orthodox street. In our view, this is not process, it is not halakhah, and it is not really Orthodox. Process has procedures and this version of Judaism does not. Street culture religion is reified into rules and challenges to leadership are by definition disrespectful. It is not law because Jewish law in canonical version has rules regarding authority. There is no body recognized as “the poskim” who after the end of the Talmudic period have a right to make rules for all Israel. This is usurped power and not legislated power; these rabbis want to preserve traditional society and have to bend the law in order to successfully preside over traditional society. And by changing the way Jewish law is derived, from the local rabbis having the right to rule locally, to great rabbis ruling over communities not their own, permitting the forbidden – clapping and dancing on holy days, and forbidding the mandatory – universal conscription in the Jewish state, this Judaism’s claim to Orthodoxy can, upon reflection, be unorthodox indeed.

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.