Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Suckers for Orthodoxy

In the course of researching the topic of metzitzah b'peh - sucking the blood of the circumcision, via the mouth - I came across something fascinating. The August 2004 edition of Pediatrics contains an article discussing health problems that resulted from metzitzah b'peh, and digresses from a medical discussion to report the following:

Because the Talmudic injunction to perform metzitza did not explicitly stipulate oral suction, 160 years ago, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Chasam Sofer), a leading rabbinical authority, ruled that metzitza could be conducted by instrumental suction, a ruling quickly adopted by most rabbinical authorities. Consequently, the great majority of ritual circumcisions are performed today with a sterile device and not by oral suction by the mohel. However, some orthodox rabbis have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs and strongly resist any change in the traditional custom of oral metzitza.

Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, took great umbrage at this. He responded as follows:

Putting aside the question of the accuracy of the authors’ rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer (see, for example, She’eilos U’teshuvos Maharam Shik, Orach Chaim 152), or the correctness of their assessment of how “the great majority of ritual circumcisions are performed today” (in the Orthodox community, at least, I believe that many if not most brissen, certainly in the New York metropolitan area, are done with metzitza b’peh), the notion that rabbis who require metzitza b’peh do so because they “have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs” is nothing less than outrageous. This type of haughty condescension has no place in a medical journal and is an affront to the great geonim, tzaddikim and morei hora’a of our generation and generations past who have insisted that metzitza must be done b’peh as a matter of strict halacha. To impugn the religious motivation and halachic integrity of these Torah giants is a libelous cheap shot that reveals far more about the animus of the authors of the Pediatrics article than it does about the halachic status of metzitza b’peh.

In fact, the authors' rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer is entirely accurate, as R. Dr. Shlomo Sprecher has demonstrated in a superb article in Hakirah. But what especially interests me here is R. Zweibel's outrage at the claim that rabbis who required metzitza b’peh felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs, which R. Zweibel considers to be impugning their religious motivation and halachic integrity. After all, Chasam Sofer was explicit that this was his motivation and the basis for his halachic determinations!

I understood from our Sages that it is necessary to be one who preserves the Torah. They warned against those who provide an opening and seek leniencies for the radicals of our people who desire them. If these radicals find a minute crack, they will greatly expand it into a breach… Therefore, it is best to elevate the nature of the prohibition… That is because due to our many sins there is a great increase today of people who say they have no concern with Rabbinic prohibitions since G-d did not command them… We find the wicked writing on Shabbos because they claim it is only a Rabbinic prohibition. They have no concern with anything which has been commanded only by our Sages and not by G-d Himself… (Chasam Sofer, Kovetz Teshuvot #58)

Chasam Sofer himself saw no need to apply this policy to metzitzah b'peh, which in his time had not been challenged by the Reformers. He was able to evaluate it without any meta-halachic considerations, which is why he could make the simply and accurate observation that it was instituted as a medical precaution and thus could be freely abandoned if the doctors determined that it was harmful. But for disciple Maharam Schick, with whom metzitzah b'peh was something that the Reformers attempted to abolish as part of their general approach, it was necessary to apply his mentor's approach to this issue, and to elevate metzitzah b'peh to the level of halachah l'Moshe miSinai. He may not have been consciously employing this approach, but if not, it was surely operating subconsciously. And since it was the explicit policy of his mentor the Chasam Sofer, it is ironic that R. Zweibel considers it to be a deficiency in religious motivations and halachic integrity. He is effectively leveling these accusations at Chasam Sofer!


  1. I think you need to take into account that R' Zweibel may have been writing for an audience who he may have identified as needing to be assured that halacha is not set on the basis of being threatened by criticism of the old religious customs but rather in some objective fashion that is not subject to outside stimuli (so don't try to impact the process from the outside).

    I don't think this is an accurate portrayl but it is a frequent one.

    Joel Rich

  2. .. Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Chasam Sofer), a leading rabbinical authority, ruled that metzitza could be conducted by instrumental suction, a ruling quickly adopted by most rabbinical authorities.
    ..In fact, the authors' rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer is entirely accurate,..

    Well, no. I do not think it completely accurate at all. While I do not have the late great Jacob Katz's superb article on the m'tzitzoh b'feh controversy in front of me at the moment, my memory of the details is somewhat different and has Chasam Sofer approving m’tzitzoh b’sponge, which does not primarily involve suction at all. Much later on came the invention of tubes and applied suction which was indeed deemed a more acceptable substitute for the traditional application of suction b’feh.

    As for Zweibel's indignation, he has also morphed the author's assertion to "some rabbis" to simply "rabbis" and beat up on that strawman. It is however always amusing to hear "outrage" issuing from quarters who never hesitate to besmirch, belittle, or defame rabbonim outside the approved machaneh.

  3. I have Katz's article- you are correct, that the Chasam Sofer was referring to a sponge. But perhaps this is what the author meant.

  4. I'm not fond of the title of this post and frankly am not even sure what you mean by it.

  5. It was meant to be a pun - those who do metzitzah (suck) for the sake of Orthodoxy. But it may have fallen flat!

  6. It would be great if we can have a discussion about metziza bapeh without politicians. zweibel is not a prestigious rabbi nor has he shown any good research. therefore there is cause for us to include him in this discussion.

  7. not everyone who prefers metzitza befeh does so b/c of "reformers." you can have a preference for metzitza befeh on the merits, and decide that there is no way you are going to let the state decide how you do a bris. the latter is a motivation to make a stink about it, not the motivation for the determination that it's preferable.

  8. >This type of haughty condescension has no place in a medical journal and is an affront to the great geonim, tzaddikim and morei hora’a of our generation and generations past who have insisted that metzitza must be done b’peh as a matter of strict halacha.

    I remember this well. I am amused at the implication that a medical journal's role is to not only show respect, but precisely the kind of respect we say, to great geonim, tzaddikim and morei hora’a of our generation and generations past. Is this really what a medical journal needs to do? Does the same thing apply to Catholic Cardinals who tell poor people in developing countries not to wear a condom?

    As for the issue, it may be true that in non-Chassidish circles metzitza be-feh has made a resurgence in recent years, but the world wasn't created 15 years ago, and certainly most adult Orthodox men (say over the age of 20) had their bris without metzitza be-feh performed on them. Any mohel who has been around the block will confirm.

  9. I was somewhat involved in the issue of metzitza b'peh a few years ago after some children apparently were infected with a herpes virus during milah. It was never proven because the mohel refused to be tested for herpes.
    The impact on the babies was severe brain damage and I think (not sure now) that one may have died.
    It was framed as a debate between "the government" and religious freedom.
    I was dismayed that the Rabbanim involved lost sight of pikuach nefesh.
    When in milah are we allowed to put the baby's health at risk? Never! Yet Rabbanim were willing to fight for a minhag.
    Don't misunderstand: minhagim are important and all things being equal we should protect them. But not at the cost of a child's brain or life.

  10. I think R. Zweibel really just had an issue with the author's tone.

  11. "After all, Chasam Sofer was explicit that this was his motivation and the basis for his halachic determinations!"

    I strongly disagree.

    The Chasam Sofer writes (based on your quote) that prohibitions which might by strict halacha have more lenient factors for dismissal must be talked about as if they are the most serious of halachot so that one does not start a slippery slope of removing rabbinic laws. That is the more negative commandments that people believe are M'Torah and not M'rabbanan the better. I.e., he wants to make the fence around the Torah into more of a brick wall.

    However, what is written in that article is that because a mitzvah is being criticized, it needs to be entrenched and not altered.

    These are two very different things.

    I don't think, based on these quotes alone, that the Chasam sofer would suggest that an improperly done mitzvah should not be rectified. Rather only a mitzvah that is dismissed because of "it's only rabbinic" needs to be made to seem more important.

    In the case of Metzitzah, the criticism is/should be that it endangers the health of the boy and so should be done in a safer fashion. It is not being argued, by that medical article, that since it is only minhag, we can ditch it entirely.

  12. It strikes me that metzitza is an issue, like killing lice on Shabbat, which illustrates the main issues behind the science/Torah tension.

    Originally instituted to help the wound heal, metzitza serves no medical purpose according to modern science.

    Even if Reform had nothing to do with it, by now it would have attracted more attention as a "nishtane hateva" question.

    Where do we draw the line? Preponderance of evidence? Chumra vs. kula? I'm sure that few halachic Jews eat fish with meat, even dermatologists.

  13. I can't understand why anyone would do metzitza bipeh EXCEPT to do what they used to do. There is really no halachic or medicinal purpose for metzitza bipeh. If anything, there are only dangers that come with metzitza bipeh. The only reason someone would do it is because they want to exclude changes to the mesorah just for the sake of excluding changes.

  14. CD Zweibel more or less heads the Agudah, and you must understand how that organiztion operates. It sees itself as the spokesmen for orthodox Judaism. It has thus become affected by the way other organizations that portray themselves as spokesmen for other groups operate. Thus, for example, as the NAACP seeks money and legislation for blacks, the Agudah seeks the same for orthodox Jews. The internal inconsistency between asking for government involvment, on the one hand, and the GOP identification of most of its members, on the other, is not unrecognized, just conveniently ignored.

    Because of this, CD Zweibel and men like Avi Shafran [bi'shaito] feel compelled to instinctively react with indignation, real or feigned, whenever orthodox Jews are criticized. The substance of the criticism is not important, so much as the fact that orthodox Jews are being criticized. So it is that in the article at hand, the writer was mildly criticizing the stubborn obstinancy of some orthodox rabbis, as KT Rich wrote, and perforce CDZ felt obliged to speak up.

    [If this post itself sounds like a critique of the Agudah, it's not. I disagree with them on probably more things than I agree, but they still do a pretty good job.]

  15. The real question about metzitzah is "Is it medically indicated?" It's not necessary to do it to accomplish a complete circumcision. It should be treated the same way as the dressings vs. no dressings issue. According to the best medical knowledge we have what is in the best medical interests of the baby?

  16. I have no knowledge of this Chasam Sofer. The Maharam Shik, one of his main talmidim wants to prove that metzitza b'peh is a halacha l'moshe misinai. He says: It's obviously disgusting to put one's mouth there and suck. So if we find that this is our mesora, then it must be that one is actually chayiv to do so, because otherwise this practice would never have started.

    An addition from Rav SR Hirsch the rationalist. There is ateshuva orinted by him demanding to do metzitza b'peh as the minhag always was. He mentions that people claim there is a "new discovery" called germs. He says that he doesn't really believe it, and even if it were so, still it could be that onlya mohel whose mouth is defiled by nivul peh, lashon hara, etc. would adversly affect the child. One that guards his mouth from these issurim will be able to do the mitzva of metzitza like the minhag without fear of negative consequences.

  17. Rabbi Yehuda Levi in his book Science and Torah says that Metzitza Be'peh has been shown to stop Hypsodias.

  18. "Therefore, it is best to elevate and exaggerate the nature of the prohibition"

    Is it impossible for you to translate a source accurately without introducing your own spin????? he says "tov lehaalos hasiur" which means elevate. not exaggerate for which he would write lehagzim. By elevate, he meant that he chose to say theres both an asey and lo saasey min hatorah when this is the ramban's view, and many would argue there is only a lo saase, and he does this since there is no nafka mina in halacha lemasse and he wishes lhaalos hassiur. you've already misread the teshuva, and misrepresnted chasam sofer as saying that he lied about something being doreisa that is drabbonon and one should do this and etc which conflates something else he says about an opinion he considers unreliable about both issurim being drabbonon w/ this issue of following ramban that there is an asey and lo saasey doreisa rather than a single doreisa. even so, you had no right to put in a word that the chasam sofer never wrote, kol shekeyn that you do so because you misunderstood/misrepresnted the teshuva in the first place.

  19. Actually, I cut-and-pasted the translation from http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2010/11/falsely-asserting-that-rabbinic-law-is.html


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