Friday, June 19, 2015

Moses and the Suckers

A friend of mine, a mohel and also a physician, is strongly against metzitza b'peh. Unfortunately, he lives in a country where he is a lone voice, battling against numerous other mohelim who are staunchly in favor of it. He told me how at a conference on mohalim, he tried to convince them not to do it, arguing not only that it has no halachic necessity and is dangerous, but also how in that country, there is a threat of a metzitzah b'peh expose leading to bris milah being banned altogether.

But his arguments fell upon deaf ears. In desperation, my friend tried a different tactic. He proposed to his opponents that he and they go to the Gadol B'Torah 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.

Thus, I do indeed understand this person's response. I just think that such meta-halachic social strategies should be weighed against a proper understanding of the topic, likely responses from the wider world, and the safety of babies.

26 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Abi, that's not the quote from Chasam Sofer that I'm referring to. And yes, I am well aware of Chasam Sofer's views regarding MBP. Please see my original post, Suckers For Orthodoxy.

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  2. The mohelim I know who practice metzizah b'peh are well aware of the health considerations. (Sprecher's article, I'm sure you know, hardly breaks new ground; health issues vis-à-vis MBP have been raised for more than a hundred years.) In fact, this is just a guess, but I would think the majority of mohelim, unless they are completely benighted, are aware of the issues. They've just decided that the risks are statistically insignificant, the hysteria overblown, and that "meta-halacha" is sometimes indistinguishable from "real halacha." Whether they are right or wrong is, and will forever be, open to confirm or debate, but you shouldn't say - or at least, seem to imply here - that they simply ignore it.

    Too often people assume ideological opposition is based on not understanding their position. Sometimes that's true. But sometimes its based on actual ideological opposition. The MBP case, I think, is an example of the latter.

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    1. Your assumption that the health concerns re MBP are "over blown hysteria" goes against the overwhelming consensus of the medical experts in infectious diseases. But I guess the mohalim that you know know better.

      Lawrence Kaplan.

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    2. Perhaps they do know better, Dr. Kaplan. Let's put it this way: How many brisses are performed in an average week across the United States, and we'll limit it to orthodox ones? 500, would you say? Little less, little more? If you consider that a huge number of them are coming from places like Lakewood, Monsey & Munroe, I'm reasonably sure the majority - to say the least - are done with MBP. And out of all those brisses, how many of them result in sickness as a result of MBP?

      So, yes, perhaps the mohelim do know better.

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    3. For one, even within MBP there are those who use a pipette. For another, medical problems associated with MBP are way under-reported, especially if death is not involved.

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    4. Unless, of course, the mohalim either don't follow up, or blame the sickness on something else.

      This question will sound more snarky than I mean it to, but how many deaths is retaining metzitzah b'feh worth?

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    5. To Pookie 2 - you may as well ask, and with more statistical incidence: how many deaths is the convenience of using an automobile worth? And its not mohalim who would be following up, its parents. Believe me, we would know if there were hundreds, or even scores, of sicknesses resulting from MBP. The numbers just aren't there.

      Anon - the majority of brisses are not using the tube. Think of the places I mentioned (and places I didn't mention, like Williamsburg.) And obviously we've no even mentioned Israel. As for alleging that something is underreported - why limit your claim to MBP, why not claim that all bris disasters are underreported? Why not claim that penicillin injection accidents are suppressed? Come now. Believe me, we would know if there were hundreds, or even scores, of sicknesses resulting from MBP. The orthodox community is extremely inter-related and connected. The numbers just aren't there.

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    6. I don't think they're comparable - on balance, cars save more lives than they cost. MbP is a religious requirement, and one element of that religion is to avoid danger.

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  3. Aren't you referring to the approach of the Chasam Sofer's students in dealing with the threat of the reform movement in Hungary? Scholars maintain that although his student, Rav Schlesinger, attributed the approach to their rebbi, it was really an inaccurate portrayal of his opinions. To say that the Chasam Sofer's held that one must be megaleh panim BaTorah shelo kihalacha in order to deal with any threat to that specific practice from the outside, even when the threat is not due to persecution but due to a health concern would be a gross misrepresentation of Rav Schlesinger's approach as well.

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    1. There's a responsum from the Chasam Sofer to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, where he said that it's "good to elevate the prohibition." This is what is referred.

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  4. See Marc Shapiro's recent book concerning misattributions for a greater good. In discussions with the author I mentioned that even if you didn't object on an ethical basis, it just doesn't work in an age where information wants to be free
    KT
    Joel Rich

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    1. it just doesn't work in an age where information wants to be free

      But aren't there modern ghettos where that rule doesn't apply (at least to most of the populace)?

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  5. I write this comment to register my protest at your title choice for this blog post. I know you are trying to be linguistically cute, but I think the word "suckers" is inappropriate to use.

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  6. It is my understanding it is now known that currently there are serious risks to the infant from metzitza b'peh. Is there not a halacha to avoid putting a person in danger ? If so how do proponents defend the practice ?

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    1. This is oversimplifying the issue. We all engage in behaviors, on a daily basis, that carry some level of risk. We drive cars. We get on airplanes. We go swimming. Put in secular terms, people understand that the benefits of these activities outweigh the risks involved. Put in halachic terms, in order for an action to be classified as dangerous, some statistical threshold must be passed.
      The primary issue here is not whether or not there is some very small possibility of sakana, but whether or not there is any value in the MBP ritual. If one holds that other methods of metztiza are equally valid (or that metzitza need not be performed at all), then obviously, even if the danger does not pass the halachic threshold of sakana, one could say that there is no reason to risk it at all. If one is of the opinion that for halachic, kabbalistic, or traditional reasons, MBP is a value, then the sakana would need to be considered only if it is statistically significant.

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  7. This is a perfect example of how in modern day Chareidism the answer to the question is picked and stuck with (we will not do MBP) even if ideological principles (we always listen to our Gedolim) are violated.
    It is the will of Landru! (Vehamayvin yavin)

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  8. I have yet to read a halachic discourse on Mbp in this situation. Halacha views danger differently to the CDC, they use ideas like שומר פתאים ה' which are not accepted in the medical field. For a person to claim halacha mandates the abolishment of Mbp, they would have to speak in halachic terms.

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    1. The Hatam Sofer never mentioned שומר פתאים ה׳. He immediately proposed an alternate method. Why should we be "frummer"?

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  9. I'm nowhere near qualified to opine on its application, but I believe סכנה is an halachic term.

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    1. There are halachic methods of dealing with סכנה which do not necessarily mesh with those of the CDC.
      1. The concept of 'majority of doctors'. The Torah relies on a majority to even be considered a danger, something current mores do no agree with.
      2. The concept of לב יודע מרת נפשו. Although poskim rarely accept this in today's circumstances, it is a halachic concept.
      3. The above mentioned שומר פתאים ה' which does not rate at all in contemporary medicine.
      When someone can take the facts of the medical establishment and process them through the viewpoint of halacha, we will have a credible halachic opinion. Until then, each side merely has half of the machine.

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  10. In my opinion, if people insist of pursuring this practice...then they should minimize as much as they can reduce the risk to a baby. On the other hand, we could eliminate this ancient and barbaric practice of genital mutilation and reduce this discussion to an historical/theological debate and nothing more.

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  11. Cutting of the flesh should only be done by a consenting adult. Children have the right to sue parents for circumcision.

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