Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Metzitzah and the Rav
Metitzah - the suction of blood from the circumcision - is prescribed by the Gemara as a medical necessity. Today, however, medical opinion states that not only is it not of medical benefit, it is actually potentially harmful, when done in the traditional manner of using oral suction. What, then, are we to do?
According to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science, whenever Chazal make a statement about realia, and do not indicate that they are speaking tentatively, then they are correct, and to doubt them is heresy. Rabbi Meiselman thus states, with regard to metzitzah (pp. 239-40), that "Chazal's assessment overrides that of modern medicine," because "Chazal understood the situation better than the physicians." He stresses that "we rely upon their judgment unswervingly, even if medical opinion says otherwise."
Following from this, Rabbi Meiselman states that "the mohel must suction the wound in a traditionally prescribed manner." Now, this could only mean that the mohel must suction the wound with his mouth. It is exceedingly strange, though, that Rabbi Meiselman avoids using the word "mouth" in this entire discussion. What is the reason for this? I'm not sure. Perhaps it is politically inexpedient for him to explicitly insist on metitzah b'peh, in the light of all the scandal revolving around the infant illness that it is has caused. Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman is trying to leave himself wiggle room to claim that he is not insisting on metzitzah b'peh but only on metzizah. But his meaning is clear. First, there is the context of the entire discussion - the entire controversy revolves around doing it with the mouth. Second, every reader will assume and understand that this is the intent - if he did not mean metzitzah b'peh, he would have to say so. Third, the phrase "traditionally prescribed manner" does not leave any room for doubt regarding his intentions.
In any case, while Rabbi Meiselman's views on this topic will be anathema to those who accept contemporary medical science and reject his extreme view regarding Chazal's authority, at least it is consistent with his overall approach. One cannot fault him for inconsistency.
Except that one can.
Dr. Shlomo Sprecher pointed out to me that Rabbi Meiselman is in fact revealing a fundamental problem here. Throughout the book, Rabbi Meiselman makes reference to "mori v'rebbi," his uncle and alleged mentor Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik. A review of the book that appears in The Jewish Press claims that Rabbi Meiselman "had unlimited access to his uncle and rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zt”l, who guided him in attaining a profound, thorough and Torah-true perspective on this topic." But Rav Soloveitchik had a very different approach to metzitzah b'peh.
Rabbi Gil Student reports that "the following was written by R. Hershel Schachter in Nefesh Ha-Rav (p. 243) about R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's position on this matter, and was confirmed by R. Fabian Schoenfeld as having happened at his son's circumcision:"
Our teacher's view was that nowadays there is no need for metzitzah at all, like the Tiferes Yisrael's view in the Mishnah [sic!] (see the Sedei Hemed for a long treatment of this). He told us how a mohel once wanted to perform metzitzah be-feh and our teacher asked him not to. When the mohel refused, our teacher told him that if his father, R. Moshe Soloveitchik, were there, he would definitely not have allowed him to perform metzitzah be-feh. However, I am more tolerant and since you are refusing, I will let you.
Rav Soloveitchik's view was also included in the statement made by the RCA:
The poskim consulted by the RCA (Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America and of the Chicago Rabbinical Council; Rabbi Hershel Schachter of RIETS/YU and the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America; and Rabbi Mordechai Willig of RIETS/YU and Segan Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America) agree that the normative halacha undoubtedly permits the third view, and that it is proper for mohalim to conduct themselves in this way given the health issues involved in the fourth view. Rabbi Schachter even reports that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik reports that his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, would not permit a mohel to perform metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, and that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, instructed mohelim in Brisk not to do metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact. However, although Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik also generally prohibited metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, he did not ban it by those who insisted upon it, and neither does the RCA advocate any such ban.
Rabbi Meiselman does not follow his rebbe's view regarding metzitzah b'peh. Worse, he does not even mention it. But even more significantly, Rav Soloveitchik's views on metzitzah b'peh show that he had a very different approach to Chazal's scientific knowledge than does Rabbi Meiselman.